WHATEVER IS DOWN (Was: Rental Zen, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Entirely Ignore DRM)

NOTICE, 11am, 6/28/07: Whatever seems to be having some sort of extreme database issue at the moment. The short story: As of just short of midnight last night, Whatever’s database apparently stopped accepting new data, including new entries and new comments (I’m able to post this, apparently, because it’s into an article already posted. Don’t ask me how it works — it just works). Anyway, I’m looking into it now. Don’t know how long it will take to fix. In the meantime feel free to visit my LiveJournal, where I will update with news and information. You can also post comments there.


Behold my latest toy, a 60 GB Creative Vision:M, which is just like a video iPod, except that if you try to connect it to iTunes, it will wail and thrash and scream “it burns us, preciousssssss!” or something like that. Which, you know, is fine, because I bought it to interface not with iTunes at all, but with another music service entirely: Rhapsody, which I’ve subscribed to for years, and which, if you pay $15 a month as I do, will allow you to fill certain music players (like the one I just bought) jam-packed full of rented music, music which is, incidentally, positively swaddled in digital rights management. The idea here is that if I should cancel my Rhapsody account, the music on my player will lock up; I won’t be able to access it. Because it’s rental music, you see.

My response to this, basically: Yeah, okay, whatever. Indeed, so utterly unconcerned am I with this that one of the reasons I bought the Creative music player in the first place is that it’s my intent to fill it up solely with rented music, in all its DRMed-to-the-gums glory. Why? Because in the end, it just doesn’t matter to me. And here’s why:

1. To begin, I own tons of music — literally thousands of albums dating back to high school — but it’s across a myriad of media, and not all of it is easily accessible: About 80% of my CD collection is packed away in boxes in the basement, for example, and only part of it I’ve ever bothered to rip to electronic format. Then there are the cassettes and (god forbid) LPs I own, and the albums and tracks I’ve downloaded off of iTunes. Honestly, it’s all a big friggin’ mess, and the idea of trying to get it all organized so I can stuff it into my music player fills me with a horrible sort of crushing ennui. Really, just stab me in the eye, because it would be less painful.

With the rental music, I don’t have to bother with all that. Right now, as I type this, I’m downloading the entire discography of Depeche Mode into my player off of Rhapsody. It took me about 90 seconds to queue up the entire playlist and drag and drop it into player; all 160 songs (or so — I’m not loading in remixes, etc at this point) will be funneled into it in another ten minutes or so. Simple, easy, done. I own all this music, but it’s easier to use the rental version. So I’m likely to replicate the part of my music collection I actually listen to into my player.

There’s the added attraction that I can also drag and drop music that I haven’t bought into the player and take it along with me to listen to, to see if I want to buy it. I often do (my rule of thumb is if I listen to an album’s worth of rented music three times through, I buy it), so that’s not bad either. And even if I don’t buy it, thanks to Rhapsody’s setup with music companies, the artists and/or copyright holders still get paid a portion of the rental fee. It’s tiny, but it’s better than nothing.

2. The DRM setup doesn’t allow me to trade music files with people, but you know what? I don’t do that anyway — it’s not a behavior I typically indulge in. When someone tells me about a band they like, what I usually end up doing is pulling that band up on Rhapsody and listening to it there, because I feel that’s an ethical way of satisfying my curiosity (a little bit of my monthly fee goes to the musicians, remember), and when I want to share music, I have a tendency to point to streaming audio/video that’s either been authorized (on YouTube, which has licensing agreements at this point with most of the big labels, or through something like AOL Music) or — if it’s questionable that it’s been authorized — is at least on an obvious site that takes down data on request (again with the YouTube). The DRM keeps me from engaging in behavior I don’t engage in, which means for me, it doesn’t present a real issue.

To be clear, the reason I don’t typically engage in file trading is not because DRM makes it difficult — I’m technologically competent enough that it would be trivial for me to get around nearly any DRM set-up yet devised — but I choose not to, and because generally speaking at this point in time there are better ways to achieve the goal of sharing music, some of which actually allow copyright holders to get paid something.

3. Yes, but what about the fact that thanks to the DRM, I can only access the music on certain computers and on certain music players? Surely that’s an imposition! Well, the thing is, it’s not. Rhapsody’s setup allows me to run its music software on five computers and on a certain number of portable players. Well, as it happens, I have four computers in the house and three portable music players — which is to say, I’m covered. And even then, should I want to get around this, Rhapsody has made it easy to do by allowing its users to access its system via a Web browser, so actually there’s no limit to the number of computers I can use to access whatever music I want. What if I want to put the music onto my stereo? I bring my laptop to the stereo and run a line from the laptop to the stereo. Done and done. But I can’t actually remember the last time I used my stereo; at this point the entire family listens to music via computers and the TV (on which our satellite system has a several dozen music channels).

So while theoretically DRM restricts my access to music, as a practical matter the restrictions it places on my use of the music are so non-onerous as to be just like not there at all. For how I use my music, and how my family uses music, the restrictions are not an issue in the least.

4. There is the fact that Rhapsody could at any point change the rules of rental access or that I could leave the service and have all that music on my player become dead files. But I have to say that this doesn’t particularly concern me because I understand that I am renting music here. Which is to say that I am under no illusion that I own the specific data files I am downloading into my player. I own some of the music because I’ve purchased it in other media, and at any point in time if I want I can rip that music into electronic files, and I would own those too. But these files — the ones I’m borrowing from Rhapsody — I don’t own any more than I own a DVD from Blockbuster or Netflix, or a book from the local public library.

If Rhapsody suddenly changes its terms to something I don’t like and I leave the service, or it goes out of business, or whatever, I understand that I’m going to lose access to these files. Big deal. I can switch to another provider, which would mean restuffing the player, which would be annoying but not horribly onerous, or I can just drop in the actual music I own. In the meantime, it’s not a problem. Indeed, in one respect the rented files have an advantage to electronic music files I own: If the hard drive I’ve stored most of my mp3s on implodes (as it will inevitably do), there goes my collection (presuming I don’t have a CD version or haven’t otherwise backed up). This is not an issue with the rented music. If my computer implodes, it doesn’t take Rhapsody with it.

Add it all up and all this rented music thing makes a lot of sense to me, and for me.

Now, to make one thing clear, when I’m talking about being fine about DRM, I’m talking about it in the context of rented music. If we’re talking about music I want to buy to own, then I’m of another mind entirely when it comes to DRM. Because I’m buying that. It’s mine. Again, the issue of DRM keeping me from accessing my music would be trivial in a practical sense, both in how I use my music, and how I could get around the DRM if I want to. But that’s not the point. The point is once I buy something, the seller is loses the ability to tell me how I can or cannot use it, and all the EULAs in the world aren’t going to change that much. But when I rent music, it’s not the same thing. Swaddle it up with DRM; I’m fine with that.