Down with copyright!

Okay, not really. But copyright laws really irritate me sometimes. In fact, intellectual property is one of the few topics that I can get carried away reading about. Hours slip away while I hop from link to link, looking for relief from my frustration, some glimmer of hope that the world of digital content might get saner in the near future. It’s been a futile search so far.

My latest excursion into IP issues began when I thought maybe I would try some of those online music stores. I was looking for ones that didn’t require a subscription. There’s so little music out there I like well enough to buy that I figured I would only use the store occasionally. The main stores that fit the bill were Sony Connect, iTunes, and Musicmatch. My intent was to download the music and transfer it to my Sony minidisc player. So before plunging in I decided I would download one song and see what I could do with it. First I went to Sony’s store and bought “Wuthering Heights” from Cinemage by Ryuichi Sakamoto. But I knew I’d be able to put that on my MD player, so after experiencing the thrill of downloading a single track and leaving the rest of the album untouched, I moved on.

Next I tried downloading from iTunes, and that’s where my high began to falter. I bought “The Dark Night of the Soul” from The Mask and Mirror by Loreena McKennitt, which is not available from Sony Connect. I figured I could locate the downloaded file on my computer and use Sony’s SonicStage software to transfer it to my MD player. Nope. The file was in some Apple-specific format that not even Windows Media Player would recognize. It had the extension m4p.

So I did some searching and discovered some nasty bits of information. Music downloaded from the iTunes store is in a protected file format. Fortunately, using the iTunes software, the files can be burned onto a CD that you can play on a CD player. The obvious solution would be to then transfer the files from the CD to the MD player using SonicStage. But although this is technically possible, fairly easy, and uses only the normal functions of commercial software from major companies, it is possibly also illegal, due to an irksome piece of legislation called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The DMCA outlaws the circumventing of copyright protection measures, which is what that procedure would do. I investigated Musicmatch to see what I could do with its music. Same situation, but with DRMed Windows Media files rather than Apple’s format. I still wouldn’t be able to move them to my MD player. I gave up and uninstalled both programs. I can’t work with people who won’t cooperate with me. This article pretty much expresses my opinion on the subject.

I also found out more about the lawsuit against Sony last year. Some of their copy-protected CDs included software used to play the CD, and the software installed a rootkit on the user’s computer, which could be used by malicious programs to gain control of the computer. And not only was the rootkit hidden, but when some of the victims tried to remove it, it damaged their computers in various ways, such as by disabling their CD-ROM drives. This is totally unacceptable, so Sony isn’t on my good list right now either.

My default reaction to these kinds of copyright annoyances is to imagine a standoff between the consumers and the copyright holders. If they won’t give us what we want (free music, interoperable file formats, whatever), we won’t give them what they want (our business). We’ll take our toys and go play somewhere else. Partly this means redoubling my efforts to find music by independent artists. But to me, when it comes right down to it, it means writing my own music.

As I said, I have a hard time finding music I really like. I guess I’m just strange. But I like writing music, even though I hardly ever do it. So I figure that’s the most reliable way to “find” music that I’ll like and that won’t come with inconvenient copy-protection features. Trying to work with DRM as a consumer is like being in debt—you have the nagging sense that you’re not in control. In times like that, I understand the reassurance that truly owning something can provide, even something as abstract as intellectual property. You’re free to do with that property whatever you like, within reason. You can even give it away.

So I’m looking at music theory again to see what I can learn. We’ll see if I stick with it long enough to write anything.

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