by Thomas Wailgum

A Fight About Rights to Copy Music

May 01, 20062 mins

From the music industry’s early entanglements with Napster to Sony BMG’s recent release of CDs that created security holes on consumers’ PCs, the transition from CDs to online music has been full of sour notes.

Only now, in addition to bemoaning the behavior of music consumers, the entertainment industry is pointing fingers at the companies that make digital rights management (DRM) technology. DRM defines how digital content such as music, video clips and movies is distributed, and controls consumer access to it. Right now, different consumer devices support different DRM standards—making for a costly and complex quandary for content providers: Which horse to ride? (To find out how media behemoth ESPN is coping with the problem, see “Game On,” Page 60.)

Consumers generally decry DRM safeguards because they interfere in sharing content between a PC, iPod or mobile phone. There’s also the issue of performance: Recent MP3 testing by CNET showed that audio playback with Microsoft’s DRM-protected software resulted in up to a 25 percent loss of battery life; conversely, iPod users can get 8 percent more playtime running non-DRM-protected tunes.

“We’d like nothing more than for you to be able to download or transfer music securely between your phone, your home and work PC, a couple of your players and your home Hi-Fi system, for example,” says John Kennedy, chairman of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, the trade body that represents record labels worldwide, during a recent BBC online chat. “It’s the technology companies that hold the key to achieving this. They need to make proprietary systems interoperable with each other.”

On the other hand, says David Rossien, a principal with management consultancy Adventis, music industry executives have yet to articulate a vision for online music, or a plan for achieving it. “They’re still trying to figure out how it’s all going to happen,” he says.