The AudioFile: Handcuffing Digital Music

Copy protection is leaking out of the digital music industry like water from a cracked snow-globe. The latest developments continue to point toward a DRM-free future in which you’ll buy music from different online stores for use anywhere, much like buying CDs from different physical shops like Virgin or Sam Goody and having them work fine in any player or computer. But if digital music is inching toward total compatibility and accessibility, which could actually help even out the lopsided MP3 player market, why are companies like Microsoft, Creative, and Samsung sabotaging their own swipes at the Apple pie with utterly useless restrictions?

The latest digital music news is that last week the Universal record label decided to “test” selling DRM-free tracks on RealNetworks’ Rhapsody, hot on the heels of EMI’s decision to drop copy protection from its downloadable catalog online. On the independent front, LimeWire — my favorite barely-legal way to get free stuff — is polishing up its shady reputation as a piracy pit by selling DRM-free 256Kbps MP3s, with big names like Barenaked Ladies, Avril Lavigne, and Sarah MacLachlan in the store window.

It’s a big circle: You’ll be able to buy your music and do what you want with it once again, just like in the nearly bygone days of the CD — the difference being that digital downloads give you more-or-less instant gratification. Phones, music players, and computers will be fully loaded with unrestricted content that can be shared at will.

Not everyone is thrilled about this idea, most notably the two remaining ultra-conservative labels, Warner Music Group and Sony BMG, who are clutching DRM in a death grip. Warner jumped all over AnywhereCD when the latter tried to sell DRM-less tracks from WMG’s catalog, and although they’ve dropped the lawsuits against each other, Warner’s music will be dropped from the service on September 30. So get your 192Kbps Metallica albums while they’re still unprotected! And Sony’s “anti-consumer” DRM missteps have been making headlines for years.

Unfortunately, it’s not just the recording industry making it difficult for digital music to live up to its potential. The three biggest stiflers of universal music sharing are music management software, audio file formats, and operating system support — things the major labels have very little control over. Sony has been an exception here, with its multifaceted existence as label, hardware manufacturer (Walkman phones and music players), and software maker (SonicStage), and music store (Sony Connect), though SonicStage is now dead, and the Connect store is about to go dark after a traumatically unsuccessful life.

Most music players from companies like Samsung, Creative, iRiver, and Microsoft still don’t support the AAC format or lossless compression — or Apple computers, which is just nutty if you think about who’s buying music players. This is one area where Sony seems to gotten in a lucky shot; its Walkman players have supported AAC for a while now. (Warning: When Sony is ahead of you in the MP3 player market these days, you know you’re doing something horribly wrong!)

Instead of nickel-and-diming on licensing fees — which is almost always the reason behind such asinine exclusions — hardware makers should shell out a few extra bucks for a better user experience through interoperability. Creative could use some of its $100 million settlement with Apple to forge some kind of working relationship between Zen music and video players and Macs and perhaps even iTunes.

Those costs could easily be absorbed by increased sales volume. More likely, though, that would be passed onto the consumer, but the tiny extra cost per unit ($10 at most) would hardly be a blip on most people’s radar, especially if you market the no-fuss-no-muss benefits of not leaving tons of potential customers out in the cold.

“Spend a little to make a little” probably isn’t much of an incentive for hardware makers to add a little versatility to their products and give them a fighting chance against Apple. But spending a little to make a lot should be pretty convincing.