iTunes: Reason #356 to hate DRM

Posted by Pierre Igot in: iTunes, Music, Technology
November 8th, 2005 • 10:28 am

I almost never buy any music from the iTunes Music Store. It just doesn’t make any sense to me to purchase crippled, lower quality electronic files when I can get the CD for the same price (more or less).

In addition, the geographic restrictions are utterly ridiculous. has no problem with my purchasing French CDs from Canada. Why should Apple have a problem with my purchasing music from the French iTunes Music Store from within the Canadian iTunes Music Store?

Until Apple starts releasing much more out-of-print music (as opposed to the latest crappy Top 10 singles or “radio edits” and “exclusive remixes” of same) and eliminates these arbitrary barriers, my attitude won’t change.

On the other hand, the iTunes Music Store has this “Single of the Week” feature where you can download a free song by a different artist every week. The song is free, but it’s still DRM-protected, which means that you can only play it on an “authorized” computer. So from time to time, when I try to play one of these “free” songs downloaded from the iTunes Music Store, iTunes asks for my Apple ID and password.


What is not fine, however, is what happened this week-end. Following the release of the Mac OS X 10.4.3 update, I did a clean install of Mac OS X 10.4 on my computer. It’s the same computer, with the same unique MAC address, the same serial number, the same internal hard drives with the same partitions, etc. I just did a clean install of Mac OS X 10.4.

Then this morning I went to iTunes to play one of my “free” songs from the iTunes Music Store. iTunes asked for my Apple ID and password, which didn’t really surprise me, since it seems to happen every time I do a clean install. But then, after I entered my Apple ID and password, iTunes displayed a message saying that I now had two authorized computers!

I have never authorized another computer for this particular Apple ID. All I have ever done is re-authorize the very same computer over and over again because of this stupid DRM that can’t figure out after a clean Mac OS X install that it’s the same bloody computer trying to play the same bloody file.

Needless to say, I am less than impressed. Since I did a clean install of Mac OS X, there is no way for me to access the “other” computer that the iTunes Music Store thinks I have authorized. That other computer is my computer before the clean install!

The only solution that I am aware of would be to “de-authorize” all computers and start over again. But the Apple Support site says that you can only do this “once a year.” Even the de-authorization is crippled!

This is ridiculous. You will not be surprised to hear that I am planning on using JHymn to de-cripple these songs. It doesn’t work with iTunes 6.0 at this point, but I am sure that it will in the near future, and when it does, I will have no qualms about using it to unlock once and for all these supposedly “free” songs downloaded from the iTunes Music Store.

To me, this whole DRM thing is pretty much the final nail on the coffin. The music industry is dying, and, as far as I am concerned, the sooner it collapses entirely, the better.

(I could blame Apple for the buggy software here, but ultimately, as far as one can tell, the only reason Apple uses DRM is because it has been forced to do so by the music industry.)

UPDATE: I submitted a complaint via e-mail to Apple, and to their credit they answered within half an hour with a proper answer. Given the impersonal nature of the reply, I suspect that this is a very common problem. Their reply refers to this Tech Note, which gives tips on how to deal with the situation I am describing above. The suggestion is actually to de-authorize the same computer multiple times, until the “Deauthorize Computer” command fails because the computer is no longer authorized to play the purchased songs.

I can no longer try this on my computer, because Apple has unilaterally decided to de-authorize “all computers associated with [my] iTunes Music Store account.” The funny thing is that, when I launch iTunes and try to play one of my purchased songs, it works just fine right now. So even though my computer has now been de-authorized by Apple, it can still play the purchased songs. I suspect I’ll actually have to restart the computer to see the change take effect, or wait until iTunes decides to go on-line and check the authorization status of my computer…

This is all rather ridiculous. The e-mail reply also says:

If you repair or upgrade certain components on your computer, one computer may use up multiple authorizations. Be sure to deauthorize your computer before you repair or upgrade it, if possible, to avoid this.

In other words, in order to avoid what is quite clearly a flaw in Apple’s DRM scheme, it is my responsibility to remember to deauthorize my computer before I do a clean install of my Mac OS X software. Great.

What about users who have to reinstall their system software because their system is no longer working? Thankfully, this doesn’t happen very often with Mac OS X anymore. But still… I fail to see how a defective computer can be used to de-authorize itself before it is repaired.

The more you think about all this, the more you get a sense that it’s completely absurd, especially in light of the fact that most copy-protection schemes are ridiculously easy to circumvent. Even without using the above-mentioned JHymn, you can always burn an audio CD of your purchased tracks and then rip them back in an unprotected form. Sure, there’ll be a small loss in quality, but if you really care so much about sound quality, you won’t be buying DRM-crippled, low quality on-line downloads anyway.

Is Apple to blame for any of this? Yes, they are to blame for the bugs in their system that cause the same computer to have multiple authorizations. And they are to blame for the fact that the only way to work around this problem is to actually remember to de-authorize your computer before maintenance.

Other than that, however, it is quite clear that this absurd situation is mostly the responsibility of the music industry and its army of lawyers. Apple can only hope that its customers will make a clear distinction and not blame it for what is mostly not its problem.

In a way, this situation is similar to what happens when the user uses a buggy third-party software application in Mac OS X. It’s not always clear to the end user whether the bugs are the fault of the application or the fault of the underlying system software. If the problem clearly occurs only within the application, the user will have a tendency to blame the third-party application developer rather than Apple’s operating system.

Here, however, there is a reversal of roles, with Apple being the provider of the “third-party software” (the iTunes Music Store and its DRM) and the music industry being the provider of the underlying “operating system” (the legal framework for the DRM). But I think that, on average, the iTunes Music Store customer is well aware that the DRM protection is something that Apple has been forced to adopt in order to please the music industry.

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