It’s a theme you’ve heard here before: “Freedom”. I’ve talked about it, and used the word pretty prolifically, but don’t let that repetition mislead you into believing Freedom is a common commodity. Quite to the contrary, it’s precious. Whether we’re talking about a freedom so sacred as practicing the religion of your choosing, or just the freedom to use your computer and your music to their fullest potential, it’s still freedom, and that means it’s still delicate and easily stolen. Just ask any journalist, gun owner or mountain biker: without the unwavering vigilance of those who are free, they’ll quickly cease to remain so.
There are a lot of digital music users who will be learning that lesson the hard way come October 1st, 2008. That’s when Yahoo will shut down their digital music service, and cease issuing “licenses” to play or burn tracks purchased from their store over the past few years. Let’s come back to this in a minute.
Would you buy a car whose engine wouldn’t start without an encrypted “go-ahead” signal from a distant satellite? Would you buy a house whose deadbolts would only allow you access after verifying your identity with the lock company’s far-flung servers? Would you buy a furnace or air conditioner designed to only activate when it receives an energy allotment from the EPA? Of course you wouldn’t. No one wants to shell out their hard-earned money for “crippled goods” – items that will only work at the whim of someone else, somewhere far away.
Or maybe they do.
I don’t know how many customers used the Yahoo music store, and I don’t know how much cash they forked over for DRM-encumbered songs. But I do know what’s going to happen to their purchases: like mission briefings to Tom Cruise, they’re going to self-destruct in a few short months. Except for perhaps a few lines of small print buried somewhere in a License Agreement Nobody Read, no one told these customers that this might happen someday, which is what makes the whole racket so insidious.
We’ve been saying it here for years, and it’s a pretty damn simple concept: DRM restricts how, when and where you can use what you’ve paid for. Real money. Your money. The crux of the Yahoo Music issue is this: when thousands of customers forked over actual dollars and cents, they got something in return that wasn’t really theirs. Sure, they could listen to their newly-purchased music, but only on Yahoo’s approved player, only if they remained a customer in good standing, and only if Yahoo didn’t decide to close down the service. Which they just did. Sorry Yahoo Music customers, it seems you didn’t buy that music – you were just paying to borrow it.
Heading back to the hypothetical from the hypothetical-turned-reality, what would happen if some new innovation in music distribution started to put the crunch on Apple, and iTunes sales plummeted? Would they release the DRM that protects iTunes-purchased tracks? Or would millions of users, with hard drives filled with billions of tracks, suddenly find their purchases rendered useless? It sounds far-fetched, but Yahoo – the web’s most-trafficked site – has just shown us that, when it comes to DRM, sometimes even the most far-fetched of situations can happen.
Meanwhile, Internet music services everywhere seem to be getting the idea that people want freedom. From Rhapsody’s rollout of an MP3 download service – whose tracks, they are proud to add, are DRM-free – to the increasing frequency with which DRM-free lossless file formats (see Magnatune) are popping up, it’s clear that freedom isn’t extinct. It may have been hibernating for a while, but some folks seem to be realizing what happens when you take it away.
What all this means, in the context of life, not just music, is this: if you have a freedom that you desire, respect, enjoy, or even cherish, then hang onto it. A handful of folks in the Boston Harbor did – when they threw their tea party in 1773. A courageous woman in Montgomery did – when she stood (well, actually, sat) her ground in 1955. A bold man did – when this year he took on the post powerful politicians of Washington DC. And won.
It’s our responsibility to know our freedoms, and it’s our responsibility not to spend our money, or our time, or our energy on things that take our freedoms away. Please, buy DRM-free music.