The AudioFile: The Beat of a Different DRM

Is the recording industry officially losing control over digital music? And more importantly, what new restrictions will it use to combat the rampant piracy that’s sure to follow? Also: Digital music still has one major drawback: no resale market. But imagine there was a way to capitalize on the potential for used MP3s….

I must be writing about digital music every other week, but what can I say? There’s a lot happening lately, between EMI releasing its entire music catalog sans copy protection at online stores like iTunes and, and Archos’s next-gen gadgets that threaten to take piracy mobile.

Amazon’s role in getting the other three major labels to go along with EMI and drop DRM is potentially very big, given it is currently slated to sell only unprotected tracks at launch later this year. Combined with the iTunes Music Store and Steve Jobs’ open letter to the majors, Amazon could parlay its enormous user base into a copyright hater’s music lover’s wet dream.

Archos’s forthcoming Gen 05 line of portable media players, slated to launch in June, will support Bit Torrent as well as CinemaNow according to… Then you’ll have the choice to download movies and music in a snap either legally or not, as long as you’re near a hotspot. Voilà, piracy on the go!

If the RIAA wants to control piracy, it should work more closely with ISPs to handle the changing landscape of digital music sharing. Of course, that would probably mean some kind of tax on usage. Yuck. But that would be so much more effective than trying to control things on the consumer’s end; they can’t stop people from sharing, but they can at least make online piracy less convenient.

Reselling Your Soul
I’m a bargain-hunter at heart. I love to get things for less than full price, and as a music nut, I’m naturally a sucker for used CDs (and LPs). I’ve gotten some pretty amazing things for 5 or 6 bucks for a used CD or $3 for a record, but I can’t really do that with digital music — there’s no deep discount for used digital goods. What’s a digital bargain hunter to do?

The problem is that when you make a copy of a digital file, you get something identical to the original, and you can do so ad infinitum. But what if digital files degraded, say, with number of plays like vinyl — or better yet, with the number of times the file is copied? It would ensure that the original would be preserved, but the more it’s copied, the lower the quality of copies gets.

You could then legally resell copies of songs, but at reduced rates based on the quality. So after you sell a file, the quality of copies drops a specified number of kilobits per second, and so on until copies are virtually unlistenable. In other words, you’d probably have a hard time selling a 64Kbps MP3 file… but at least you’d have the pristine original.

Unfortunately, any way you slice it, this adds up to just another form of DRM — but a less restrictive one. Sadly for Big Music, it would be too little, too late, as DRM is clearly a terminal patient.

(The illustration above was created by Leah Perrotta, a Brooklyn-based artist and all-around lovely gal.)