Four Ways to Reclaim Your Digital Rights

Illustration: Barry Blitt
EMI Records' move to sell unprotected MP3 files (available first at Apple's iTunes Store) may finally point the way out of the digital rights management morass. But most of us remain stuck in it, and we're not likely to get unstuck any time soon.

If you buy a music CD at Amazon.com, you can generally rip the songs to your hard drive and listen to them on any device. But if you buy the same songs from iTunes, Napster, or the Zune Marketplace, you typically can't--not without jumping through hoops, anyway. Except for unprotected songs by EMI artists, iTunes downloads play only on iPods. Napster To Go music works solely on approved PlaysForSure devices; and Zune tunes play on Zunes, period. Thank you, DRM.

However, DRM is not exactly airtight. Besides hacks and cracks, there are legal ways to copy media files and play them across a range of devices.

Let the Music Play

The classic workaround is to open your media software and burn songs to a CD, where they're stored as CD Audio files--DRM-free. Reinsert the burned CD and rip the tunes to a new media player as unprotected MP3s. This method is far from hassle-free, however.

I used the burn/rerip trick to swap my purchased music files between iTunes software and my Zune media player, but I had to retype title and artist information for each track. Napster let me burn tunes I'd bought from the service and open them in iTunes and Zune (again without data tags), but I couldn't rip songs, because Napster's software can't read CD Audio files. One other problem: Napster's terms of service forbid reripping songs you buy from it (iTunes' and Zune's agreements don't address this issue).

Option two is to buy a program like SoundTaxi Platinum $15, or the new NoteBurner $30. SoundTaxi converts tunes into MP3s by silently rerecording them via your PC's audio hardware, though at faster than normal playback speed. NoteBurner works as a "virtual CD" drive inside your media player; just copy the songs to a NoteBurner folder instead of to a physical CD drive. Both products convert batches of songs with data tags intact, but they need the original media player software.

Of course, you can then upload these MP3s to any file-swapping network. So, are SoundTaxi and NoteBurner legal?

No, says attorney Marc E. Mayer, a partner at Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp, whose clients include Apple and the Recording Industry Association of America. Mayer says such apps run afoul of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, because they let users circumvent copy protection. But if you don't swap files online, you probably won't get sued, he says.

Fred von Lohmann, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says such software is legal, because it's simply recording unencrypted audio (I tend to agree). If it tried to crack encryption, that would be different.

The Hole Truth

Even more onerous is DRM for video. You can't burn copies of videos you purchase from the iTunes Store, and all DVDs are copy protected. The legal solution? Get a device, like the Archos 604 Portable Multimedia Player and DVR station ($430), that records via analog inputs.

I connected my DVD player to the A604 and recorded a Discovery Channel DVD as it played; then I copied it to my PC via USB. The video was less than DVD quality, but it looked fine on my computer.

Hollywood wants to plug this "analog hole" by requiring electronics manufacturers to honor digital flags that limit how video can be copied. So far, it hasn't succeeded. Eventually content owners will have to fix the DRM problem, either by dropping it or by using one scheme that works across different devices.

For now, I have a little less DRM in life, which makes me a little more free.

Contributing Editor Dan Tynan is the author of Computer Privacy Annoyances (O'Reilly Media, 2005). You can send him e-mail at gadgetfreak@pcworld.com.

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