Avoiding CRAP

by on May 25, 2006

David Berlind defends himself against critics who argue he’s selling us out by endorsing efforts like DReaM:

Here on ZDNet, and in email, I’ve been taking some heat for my idealism, or in this case, my lack thereof, when it comes to DRM: er: CRAP. Follow this thread for an example. Some readers would rather see me stick to the hard line of buying and advocating nothing that includes DRM. In essence, donning a hazmat suit like the CRAP-fighters above (personally, what better metaphor can you ask for.. hazmat suits, crap:get the picture?). So, just to be clear, I haven’t personally purchased any DRM-related material since first figuring out the downside for myself (not being able to play 99 cent songs on a $20K whole home audio system). That said, I’ve had people come up to me and ask which MP3 player they should buy for themselves or someone else as a gift and, invariably, they’re not open to the idea of not buying one at all, buying one that takes a lot of work (circumventing DRM, digitizing music yourself), or breaking the law. I know. They must be from another planet. Freaks.

OK, back on Earth, these people exist. And so, the question is, do you stick to your ideals, walk away, and let them suffer from their own lack of enlightenment. Or, do you at least try to guide them to something that’s a fender bender compared to a fatal accident? I will vote with my dollars. But, at the same time, if there are people out there that refuse to heed the ultimate advice, I can’t let my idealism stand in the way of steering people away from the trainwrecks. That’s why I’ll try to guide people like that to solutions like Navio or Project DReaM, only after giving up on convincing them to not buy any of this CRAP. CRAP is a dirty business and in the end, it’s we, the users, who get dumped on. But there are some things we can do to control the extent to which that happens.

People shouldn’t reject DRMed products because of some kind ideological hippy crusade. They should reject DRMed products because it’s in their own interests to do so. Right now we’re in the throes of format wars: iTunes vs. Windows Media, BluRay vs. HD-DVD, CinemaNow vs. Google Video, etc. If you buy DRMed content in one of those formats, you’re committing yourself to buying devices compatible with that format for as long as you own that content.

In contrast, if you buy content in open formats, you can use it on any device. Is that wildly impractical? I don’t think so. Until this week (when I signed up for eMusic), I bought all of my music on CD. I would then rip them to MP3 format and stick the CD on a shelf, never to be used again.

Mostly, I buy used CDs from Amazon.com. Not only does that give me music in blissfully DRM-free MP3 format, but its often cheaper to boot. The only downside is I lose a bit of instant gratification: it takes a few extra days for my music to get to me. But that hassle is dwarfed by the hassle I’d have to go through if I bought songs from iTunes and then decided I wanted a non-Apple MP3 player. And on top of that, I get some nice cover art and liner notes, and I have a convenient backup should anything happen to my computer. Avoiding DRM isn’t an idealistic crusade. It’s common-sense advice that consumers should follow for their own good.

I think Berlind’s focus on devices is backwards: there’s nothing wrong with getting a device that supports DRM. All MP3 players will play MP3 files, the only difference is which other DRMed formats it supports. But if you don’t buy DRMed music, that doesn’t really matter.

The other thing that needs to be noted is that no matter how nice they might look on paper, neither Navio or DReaM has a significant catalog yet. So if we’re talking about giving practical advice to consumers, eMusic is a far more practical suggestion than Navio’s paltry list of clients, or DReaM’s purely hypothetical offerings. Right now, if you want Big Six music downloads, you pretty much have two options: FairPlay or Windows Media. I don’t think it’s radical to suggest to consumers they’d be better off buying CDs until better download options come along.

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