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Yahoo! Music Goes to Hell: The Long Fall of DRM

by July 25, 2008

Yahoo! Music Store has announced that it’s shutting the doors on its DRM-laden music superstore. Somewhere Freddy Mercury is screaming “Another One Bites the Dust” at 128 kilobits per second. Despite short-term annoyances to burned customers, the joy to music fans is this era of Digital Rights Management is waning like a bad hangover.

It was only 2005 when we first heard the details of the PlaysForSure DRM scheme used by Yahoo! Music and others. Microsoft’s Media Player 10 DRM (PlaysForSure) was licensed to various music services (including Yahoo! Music) and to nearly any portable music player manufacturer.

The plan’s purpose was to topple iPod and iTunes absolute dominance in online music. In 2005 only 4 percent of music was purchased online, but it was a significant growth from the year before. Up to 70-percent of the total online music market belonged to Apple.

Yahoo! Music launched in 2005 hoping to carry its success in streaming music (Launchcast) over to a full fledged music store. Yahoo was already a big player with the most popular streaming radio service on the Internet and it was confident it could step up to rival iTunes.

The new DRM 10 scheme was spreading across hardware manufacturers like a thorny weed. All the big names in the burgeoning digital audio industry were on board - Samsung, Archos, Creative, Dell, iRiver… if it made a portable music player it wanted a piece of Microsoft’s plan to challenge iTunes.

Sony’s Own DRM-Stumble

The only notable holdout to Microsoft’s destined-to-fail DRM plan was Sony. The Japanese consumer electronics giant was big enough not to inherit Microsoft’s misstep. Sony was busy planning proprietary blunders of its own with a newly revamped Walkman brand. The company created a proprietary DRM-protected format called ATRAC3. The music files could be purchased from its own music store called Connect and could only be played in Sony digital audio players. Sony was banking that what the world needed was a late-to-market carbon copy of Apple’s business plan.

You’ll be excused for never having heard of Sony’s Connect. It was short lived and eventually Sony released a firmware upgrade that made its players compatible with PlaysForSure. Battered and beaten by its own DRM-missteps and humiliated by the RootKit scandal, Sony released instructions to its customers to convert their ATRAC3 files to WMA or MP3.

DRM 10 aka PlaysForSure

The system was clever, like cops psyching a confession out of a suspect, Microsoft and its partners would get you to buy music without really giving you anything.

All you have to do is pay a nominal fee of about $10-$15 per month and you could download all the 128-bit WMA files you like. They’re all encoded with Microsoft’s PlaysForSure DRM 10. This means they’ll only playback on the computer that created the online music account and a select portable device armed with PlaysForSure compatibility. Cancel your subscription or let it expire and your DRM-protected music library would vaporize. One might say your music collection would disappear like a 1977 hit Kansas song – Dust in the Wind. The plan simply hasn’t caught on.

What Competition?

Fast forward three years and iTunes growing market share is rampant. Today iTunes market share has swelled to 19 percent of the entire music industry, defeating even Wal-Mart and Best Buy. Apple has become such a juggernaut in the industry that the rise of digital downloads is synonymous with the rise of iTunes itself. All of its rivals in the online music industry combined barely dent its market. One could argue that Apple has been permitted to grow unchecked due to a complete lack of competent rivals.

The Fall of PlaysForSure

The strongest message to wary consumers that PlaysForSure was in freefall was Microsoft Zune, released in Nov. 2006. The Redmond software giant deployed its own portable music player destined not to use its PlaysForSure plan. Many were left scratching their heads and a lot of misunderstanding ensued. Zune Marketplace and PlaysForSure are completely separate DRM ecosystems.

PlaysForSure and all its collective music services and devices were stalled before the Cyclops of Apple. Unable to claim a share of Apple’s market, Zune was Microsoft’s way of telling them: If you want something done right you have to do it yourself. We’re still waiting!

Change is in the air and DRM is quietly disappearing from the digital audio market. To many progressive consumers burned by the fall of PlaysForSure, DRM may have looked like a reality to which we’d all have to reluctantly agree. The market had other ideas.

Why DRM Sucks!

Do we even have to say it again? Audioholics has been like a broken record or a sample on repeat (to digitize the analogy) on the topic of DRM over the years. Business is finally beginning to understand because Digital Rights Management has proved a plight for music sales.

  • The market has demonstrated that people may rent movies but they want to own music. PlaysForSure obfuscates the retail transaction between the customer and the online music service. How many subscribers to Yahoo! Music didn’t fully understand the consequences of cancellation?
  • DRM-restriction makes a mockery of private property; a philosophical cornerstone America has stood behind for over 200 years. Veil it behind taxation or technology at your peril.
  • DRM 10 has proved buggy and required occasional updates to resolve issues related to copying music between devices. You had to follow a battery of technical instructions if you wanted to keep your music library after getting a new computer or reformatting your computer’s hard-drive.
  • Test have demonstrated that adding DRM to the processors load drains additional power. CDFreaks.com estimated a 25-percent loss in battery life due to chronic decoding of DRM.

The Future is DRM-Free

History will show that the meteoric rise of legally purchased digital music was hurt more by DRM than piracy.

Today iTunes has successfully adapted to the brave new future and sells DRM-free music. All four major music studios and a long list of indie labels have agreed to peddle music without DRM restrictions.

Sony’s ATRAC format has died and Connect closed its doors. MSN Music has sounded its death knell and its DRM keys are set to expire in 2011 nuking its customer’s music library.  Yahoo! Music Store is the latest casualty in the insanity of DRM. Its store and key servers will go offline on September 30, 2008.

May we have a moment of silence for legitimate customers who got burned in the DRM-10 scheme? Perhaps you bought an MP3 player with a month’s free subscription, only half-understanding the terms and agreed to continue playing along. Or maybe, despite the warnings from respected online sources (including…ahem, Audioholics) you believed you were pioneering the future of digital music.

The long-surreal nightmare of DRM-music is drawing to a close. Now if only the movie industry would follow suit.

About the author:
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Wayde is a tech-writer and content marketing consultant in Canada s tech hub Waterloo, Ontario and Editorialist for Audioholics.com. He's a big hockey fan as you'd expect from a Canadian. Wayde is also US Army veteran, but his favorite title is just "Dad".

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