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5 Biggest Music DRM Debacles of All Time

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Thank God for DRM. Without it, the internet would be a cesspool of illegally pirated music, movies and software. Oh, wait, the internet totally is that, because DRM is, quite possibly, the most pointless innovation of the digital age. Companies spend millions of dollars each year coming up with new ways to protect their online content just to see some fifteen year old kid figure out how to circumvent it. Repeat as needed.

But DRM isn't just an exercise in futility. When you absolutely, positively, must anger every customer you have, few weapons are better than DRM. Take these shenanigans, for example...

  • 5. RealNetworks Harmony Starts A Firmware War

    RealNetworks made waves in July, 2004 when they announced that they had finally freed iPod users from the chains that bound them to the iTunes Music Store. Their new encoding technology, Harmony, would mimic Apple's Fairplay system, allowing RealRhapsody music store users to purchase songs that would work on the iPod. To entice customers to make the switch, Rhapsody immediately launched a three week long 49 cent song sale.

    As revolutionary as this all sounded, there were a couple things RealNetworks failed to take into account. First, after the initial sale was over, people were mostly just "free" to pay 99 cents per song at a different store. That's freedom like being transferred from county jail to state prison is freedom. Second, Apple created the Fairplay technology, which meant they were probably capable of creating a way to stop RealNetworks from exploiting it. Upon hearing about Harmony, Apple issued this doom and gloom laden statement...

    "We strongly caution Real and their customers that when we update our iPod software from time to time it is highly likely that Real's Harmony technology will cease to work with current and future iPods."

    And sure enough, a few months later a firmware update issued by Apple effectively stopped any Harmony encoded songs from playing on the iPod. RealNetworks promised to rework Harmony so it once again would work on the iPod, which would have no doubt led to a new firmware update to break it again. Realizing that they were basically promising their users that their songs would, like, totally sometimes work on an iPod (except when they didn't) RealNetworks eventually abandoned Harmony.

  • 4. RealNetworks Releases Incredibly Useless DVD Copy Software, Is Promptly Sued

    RealNetworks...these crazy kids just never learn. Apparently, angering the largest digital music store on the planet was not sufficient. A couple of years after the Harmony fiasco, RealNetworks returned with RealDVD, drawing the ire of pretty much all of Hollywood. The program, at a cost of $49, did the made copies of DVD's. Eureka! Finally, a damn near fifty dollar replacement for all of those absolutely free programs that do the exact same thing, except much more effectively.

    As if the thought of actually paying for DVD copying software isn't harrowing enough, RealDVD took the extra step of adding a delightful layer of DRM protection to your newly pirated disc which restricts you to viewing it only on the computer it was copied on. Despite this safeguard, the movie studios sued, citing concerns over their own copy protections programs being compromised. So far, RealNetworks has yet to be sued for blatant stupidity and horrid decision making, but give it time.

  • 3. Sony Strikes Out On Its Own, Eventually Strikes Out Altogether

    As copy protected digital music began to take hold, there were two formats that everyone used: Apple used Fairplay and everyone else used Window's PlaysForSure. Why just the two? Because in the world of digital music players, it's iPod against the world. The big selling point other devices have is that, unlike the iPod, you can use their digital players at almost any store except iTunes.

    It was into this sea of relative normalcy that Sony dove headfirst with their proprietary ATRAC (Adaptive Transform Acoustic Coding). Not content to just take on the iPod in the digital player market, Sony decided to take on everybody, producing a digital player that was only compatible with their Sony Connect music store. Unfortunately, neither the store or Sony's new line of digital music players were compatible with consumers' desire to spend money.

    By late 2007, the Connect store's market share was less than Itunes, EMusic, Napster and even Urge. Urge! That's not a good sign. By March of the following year, the Connect store was closed. To their credit, Sony kept functionality for ATRAC encoded songs in place through its older digital music players and through SonicStage. Not every now-defunct-digital-music-store customer would be so lucky.

  • 2. MSN Music Closes, Makes A Liar Of PlayForSure

    It was no real shock when MSN decided to close its MSN Music store in 2006. When it was launched, the hope was that it would prove to be a viable competitor to the digital music giant that is iTunes. That never came to pass, and when they opened the Zune Marketplace, Microsoft found themselves with one more digital music store than they needed.

    Fast forward to April, 2008. Unsuspecting former MSN Music customers received an email informing them that, as of August 31st, 2008, MSN would no longer be providing license keys for songs purchased from MSN Music. What this meant was that, prior to that date, users would have to decide not only what five computers to authorize their purchased tracks to play on, but also what operating system. With a change in operating system (XP to Vista for example) comes a need to update your song licenses. If those licenses are no longer available, those songs that you purchased will no longer work. If you try to transfer your song purchases to a new computer and the licenses are no longer available, the songs will not work. In short, anyone that happened to spend money at the MSN Music store (and I can't imagine who the hell that would have been) will see their investment go down in flames as soon as they buy a new computer. PlaysForWhatnow?

  • 1. Sony BMG Extended Copy Protection (XCP)

    With all of the debate that surrounds digital music and DRM, there is still one format that remains, for the most part, completely DRM free...the compact disc. In 2005, Sony BMG hoped to change this. By secretly loading malware to any computer that played their CDs. Nice!

    Almost immediately upon releasing CD's with XCP software, Sony BMG was met with waves of controversy. For starters, the program itself secretly loaded to the user's computer before the End User License Agreement even appeared on the screen. Not that the EULA actually mentioned the software, but if it did, by then it was too late to uninstall the program. Not that you could actually, you know, remove the software. It included files that were hidden and thus impossible for the average user to remove.

    Things only got worse when Sony BMG released a "removal tool" for the controversial program. To get the removal tool, users had to provide a valid email address which Sony basically stated would be sold to various third parties. The removal tool also required downloading an Active X control that opened up various security holes in a user's computer which could be exploited by a number of worms and trojans. All of this so people wouldn't make illicit copies of the new Our Lady Peace album. You know, among others, but still, Our Lady Peace?

    Predictably, the surreptitious software led to lawsuits being filed in Texas, California and New York. Within weeks, Sony BMG issued a recall on all titles that included the XCP software and set up a website to provide details on how customers could exchange XCP discs for non-copy protected discs. But not before countless people had endured the hassle of having to uninstall XCP from their computer. Those who didn't hold down the space bar when they inserted the CD or hear about the scotch tape trick, anyway.

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