Do you own songs bought online? Well, sort of

Sat May 13, 2006 9:49 AM ET

By Duncan Martell

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Like millions around the world, you have an iPod, 
the market-leading digital music player made by Apple Computer Inc. and 
have spent perhaps a few hundred dollars buying songs from the company's 
iTunes music store.

But do you really own the tunes? Whether you do, however, depends on how 
you define ownership.

"Owning implies control and if you bought the tracks on iTunes you don't 
have complete control," said Rob Enderle, president of market researcher 
the Enderle Group.

Those songs you bought online from Apple play just fine, of course, so long 
you do so on the company's iTunes digital jukebox software, on an iPod, 
burn a CD (you can only burn the same "playlist," or collection of songs, 
seven times), or stream them wirelessly to your stereo using another Apple 

But Apple's FairPlay digital rights management, or DRM, software prevents 
you from listening to those purchased songs on a music player from Dell 
Inc., Creative, Sony, or others. The same thing goes for songs you've 
imported to your computer from CDs you already own.

The DRM software is Apple's way of preventing piracy and is a large part of 
the reason why the recording industry has so warmly embraced the iTunes 
Music Store.

"A lot of people would argue it's the closest thing you're going to get 
other than buying a CD," said analyst Mike McGuire of market research firm 
Gartner of the restrictions Apple and others place on music bought online.

To be sure, Apple rivals have their own DRM technology to protect against 
piracy, such as Sony Corp. and Microsoft Corp., but none have been as 
successful so far as Apple. The Cupertino, California-based company has a 
70-percent market share in the United States for digital music players, and 
higher than that for music purchased online.

Beyond just having songs you bought from iTunes "trapped" on the iPod and 
in iTunes, it's also not a snap to move songs from an iPod - whether you 
bought them or initially pulled them off a CD - back up to a computer. 
While it's possible to do so, Apple doesn't make it easy, right off the 
bat, because it's trying to discourage piracy.

"They do it to lock you in," Enderle said, noting an example of if you 
spent $500 on buying songs from iTunes. "You now have a $500 switching cost 
to pull out of iTunes."

But there are a number of different and perfectly legal reasons why you'd 
want to be able to do that.

For example, your computer suffers a disastrous crash, you lose data that 
includes your music library, and you want to recover your lost music 
library from your iPod and return it to your now-repaired computer.

There are programs that let you move songs from the iPod, up to a computer 
- such as Senuti and PodWorks - but, for the average user, it may be more 
than he or she is up for. There are some ways around companies' DRM 
technology, but those are far trickier to use and Microsoft and others 
frequently plug holes in their software to prevent converting DRM-protected 
songs into unprotected MP3 files.

As for how complicated it is to get around DRM protection, consider this 
quote from a Website: "Microsoft's DRM is actually, for a change, really 
well thought out. The XML content header at the top of every protected WMA 
file just can't be changed because it's digitally signed using either ECC 
or RSA. The same thing goes for the actual license files and corresponding 

That's language that is probably not readily understood by the average 

"The average consumer hasn't run into the restrictions" that the likes of 
Apple, Microsoft and Sony have placed on online music purchases, McGuire 
said. "Certainly there's some interest in Apple wanting people to return to 
the iTunes store but these restrictions are really due to the rights 
holders and the labels."

George Antunes, Political Science Dept
University of Houston; Houston, TX 77204
Voice: 713-743-3923  Fax: 713-743-3927
antunes at uh dot edu

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