Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Sensible DRM? Nokia's new music service

Digital rights management, better known by its acronym DRM, is a concept that's been unpopular from the start.

For the media industry, the big issue with distributing music in the form of digital files was always that there was no way of preventing the punters going and copying the files to their mates. DRM promised to provide a way of selling digital music (and film, but I'm going to focus on music in this post) files whilst preventing customers doing this. All good stuff - everyone's a winner - right?

Unfortunately not. DRM has not been a success so far. An important reason for this appears to be that the media industry has been over-zealous in using DRM technology to restrict customers from playing their purchased music the way that they want to play it. Let's take the most well known example of applied DRM: iTunes. Buy a piece of music on iTunes and want to play it on your MP3 player? That's fine, provided your MP3 player is an iPod; try and convert your purchased music into an MP3 and iTunes will tell you 'no can do'. Want to back up your iTunes music for safe keeping? Again, fine, but let's hope that the back-up isn't your 6th copy of the file, because if it is then your file won't play.

The level of restriction in iTunes and other digital music services go far beyond what the average person would expect to have imposed on them when buying music. As a result, it seems that many people are put-off from buying digital music files - in September last year I noted that less than a quarter of iPod owners regularly buy music from iTunes. Most people can't get their heads around the complex restrictions imposed by DRM, and so want nothing to do with commercial services that use it.

To make matters worse, at the end of the day, DRM isn't effective. Simply burn your music to a CD and then rip the CD back into (DRM-free) MP3 files. Or use one of the many tools freely available online that allow you to remove DRM protection. Even Bill Gates has said that there are "huge problems" with DRM, and Apple is now backtracking from DRM with the introduction earlier this year of iTunes Plus, a service that provides DRM-free music tracks that are slightly more expensive than their bolted-down DRM cousins.

No one wins from DRM - the music industry doesn't get the revenue, and we are left without a decent way of legitimately buying digital music files.

Into this tarnished technological arena steps Nokia, with an interesting new use of DRM (see a report by The Registry). The mobile phone company is gradually developing a content-business, and part of this is a digital music service. Nokia has said that the service, which will launch in 2008, will allow users of certain Nokia phones to download music to their devices for free, and keep them for as long as they want. Only if they want to move the music from their Nokia will people have to pay a fee.

These are the kind of usage restrictions that anyone can understand and, just as important, the restrictions are commercially fair to the customer. The customer gets a high-quality music file for free, and it's legitimate - the best preview service in existence. Want to do more with the file? Pay a fee and off you go. Customers aren't put-off from using the service in the first place, meaning that the music industry stands to make some money.

There are a few problems with Nokia's proposal: the service is PC-only (wave goodbye to the Mac & Linux market), and restrictions on use will apply even after you've paid to move the music to your computer. However, I'm going to stick my neck out and say that, if Nokia resolve those problems, this is a potentially brilliant use of DRM.

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