Musical Musings

I just received an email from the founder of Pandora asking for support in bringing a halt to the RIAA’s attempts to gather more royalties from online music broadcasters at rates which would effectively bring online radio to an end. I’m personally a big fan of online radio and I would be really sad to see it come to an end for no reason other than pure and simple greed. The entertainment industry, especially music is at a very important point. The monopoly held by record and broadcasting companies is gradually being brought to an end by the growing prevalence of technology and the sophistication of media recording and editing tools available to the common man. Of course the industry isn’t about to let go of its major streams of income without fighting tooth and nail for it. The result is the proliferation of techniques and technologies which have no other purpose than restricting how consumers can use the media that they have legally bought.

Apple’s extremely successful online iTunes store uses digital rights management and a patent-licensed, non-free file format to prevent copying music. However the result isn’t really the stopping of privacy, but growing inconvenience for the user. You can’t officially use software other than iTunes to transfer music to your iPod and music bought on the iTunes store can’t be played without iTunes or some sort of unauthorized, unsupported plugin. I feel that DRM is quite simply an injustice to honest paying customers. While I do not support piracy and feel that musicians should be adequately compensated for their work, I don’t think any authority has the right to tell me what I should do with music that I have paid for. The RIAAs claims that storing my music on an online backup system like MP3Tunes or even on multiple CDs is illegal. Excuse me if I disagree.

The strangest part of this whole affair is that it is technologically impossible for any authority to regulate copying the way that the industry wants to. If you can create software to lock down particular media files, it is also possible to create software to open those locks. Of course the easiest thing to do, as a consumer is to simply not buy music or other media that is crippled by DRM or other restrictions. Music CDs are one way to go. However, if you are the type who prefers to buy music in a purely electronic online, you don’t have to turn to Apple’s DRM’d iTunes store any more. The recently launched Amazon MP3 store has a large and growing collection of DRM-free 256Kbps MP3 tracks for download as soon as you have paid. These are plain old MP3 files that can be copied and transferred without limit and loaded onto any MP3 player. I’ve been considering buying music online, and though I would still pay a little extra for a CD, I think Amazon’s store is a much better option than the iTunes store and it’s a great way for conscious consumers to vote with their wallets.

My own music collection is purely MP3, ripped from the CDs. I do use the iTunes/iPod combo, because it works for me. However, I do maintain separate backups of my music (on a separate computer and on DVD). The recent attempts by Apple to prevent the use of the iPod with iTunes MP3 players has disturbed me somewhat, but for the time being, I am content to tolerate it. At the same time, I don’t use the non-free AAC format (which is default for iTunes). Since the MP3 is not actually free or open, I have considered changing my music to something that is, such as Ogg Vorbis. However, I think that at this point that would be rather inconvenient for me. Most importantly, I use my iPod a lot and the iPod doesn’t support the Ogg Vorbis format. The Rockbox firmware for iPods and other players allows playing Ogg Vorbis files, but it only supports older iPods. When it becomes available for newer iPods, I will seriously consider a switch. In fact, I have been looking around for an older iPod that I could get for cheap to try Rockbox on it.

Though I’m content to use the iPod/iTunes combo for the time being, if Apple were to try to lock me in to its proprietary format, I would not hesitate to switch to a less restricted player (and Ogg Vorbis while I’m at it). I suspect that many other people would do the same, especially tech-savvy early-adopters. And it’s probably not a good idea to get the early adopters unhappy.

Edit: I had incorrectly referred to AAC as Apple’s proprietary format. Thanks to the first commenter below for pointing this out.

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Shrutarshi Basu

Programmer, writer and engineer, currently working out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

One thought on “Musical Musings”

  1. Just to let you know, AAC is neither Apple’s format nor proprietary. It’s a part of the MPEG international standard. While it’s specifications may be open, that’s not to say it’s a free format, though. It’s still covered by various patents and licensing fees.

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