Cory Doctorow of Boing Boing responds here to my commentary on platform-agnostic music listening. On a basic level, I’m not saying anything different than what Cory originally did: Windows DRM is broken and frustrates customers, and the MTP connection cripples Windows Media devices by limiting interoperability. (Try plugging a recent MTP device into a Mac or Linux box and see what happens. Then try an ultra-cheap generic flash music player and marvel at the “advancement” of technology.) iRiver giving users an option to switch back to what works, UMS, is a good thing.

What this comes down to is some subtler points on which we disagree, and whether iRiver is really changing their stance. He quotes my original story, so I’ve excerpted it here so we can follow this. Philosophical debates aside, one point worth making is that there’s nothing stopping you at the present moment for using this hardware and software without the DRM features, whatever Microsoft and the manufacturers intended. Readers noted in comments on the previous story that you’re not restricted to DRMed music on iTunes, and can even get around iTunes entirely with third-party software. Just as I thought Boing Boing shouldn’t conflate DRM with the underlying pipe, readers have suggested that software that’s simply proprietary (like iTunes) shouldn’t be conflated with software designed to actively manage DRM licenses (like Apple’s FairPlay), even if the latter depends on the former.

In the future, you may not be able to ignore DRM, but now you can, and that’s important because it means consumers can still choose to avoid some of these broken technologies. I think that was part of Cory Doctorow’s original point on Boing Boing, so I may be splitting hairs, but it is important to break down these issues. Mr. Doctorow spends a lot more time thinking about these things than I do, so it’s interesting to read his arguments here.

Italicized text from the original story.

PK — MTP is proprietary to Windows: Not exactly. Microsoft did develop MTP, so it is technically a proprietary format; it’s actually extended from the protocol used to connect digital cameras. But unlike Microsoft’s DRM technology, for which Microsoft charges a license fee, MTP is freely-licensed.

CD responds: Peter, “proprietary” means that you aren’t allowed to implement this unless MSFT says you can. License fees are only one way that a program or interface can be proprietary; more important are things like “compliance and robustness,” particularly the latter, which requires that implementations be designed to resist user-modification, which effectively eliminates open source/free software implementations. Moreover, since these systems can be construed as “effective means of access control” under the DMCA, building technology that interoperates with them without taking on the license and its compliance and robustness rules is also unlawful. By adding the veneer of DRM to these technologies, vendors like Microsoft create a new kind of copyright: the right to control who may make an interoperable product.

PK: I don’t disagree with any of these arguments in a broader sense. However, whatever the situation on the hardware side (and there’s plenty in most electronics hardware that’s not open source, for better or for worse), there are already open source/free implementations of the MTP protocol. Maybe the open source implementations of MTP support on Mac and Linux violate Microsoft’s license terms, but from what I can tell from the Microsoft developer site, they don’t — at least, not under the current terms.

MTP is DRM: Totally wrong. MTP just happens to be a protocol that supports DRMed music. You can use it to transfer non-DRMed music if you really want to, and it actually does support drag-and-drop in Windows; if you drop an OGG file on an iRiver U10 or clix through Windows Explorer, that’s exactly what you’re doing. So DRM and MTP are two different things, even if they’re both part of Microsoft’s PlaysForSure specification.

CD responds: MTP is DRM in the sense that a DRM needs a “secure” channel to use for establishing a “chain of trust” between devices. MTP is designed and used as part of the DRM system that makes up PlaysForSure.

Absolutely, MTP is part of the overall DRM scheme. And no hardware vendor is likely to implement MTP for any other reason than to support Microsoft’s DRM certification process. Whatever Microsoft may say, the ability to play Windows Media files with DRM is the major incentive for adding MTP.

But I think it’s best not to conflate a delivery mechanism, which supports content with and without DRM licenses, with DRM content that can only be played on DRM-enabled devices and software. MTP is the pipe, whereas the other element — the Windows Media Rights Manager software that restricts whether or not you play content — is what I think is actually getting on people’s nerves. MTP may be a prerequisite to DRM certification for certain kinds of content (like subscriptions), but just because you have a device with MTP doesn’t mean you have to use DRM. It’s a channel; it’s the pipe between your computer and your player. You could send non-DRMed OGG files of Creative Commons-licensed music down that pipe and nothing else, using Linux and an open source player, if you really wanted to.

And while license fees per se don’t define whether something is open or proprietary, they certainly do define whether something can be broadly implemented. Implementing Windows DRM means sending money to Microsoft; implementing MTP doesn’t.

Of course, I still think as Cory does that MTP is a really bad idea, and replaces something that’s open and broadly implemented (USB Mass Storage) with something that’s currently only fully implemented out of the box on Windows XP. It also replaces the controlling body; UMS is controlled by the USB Implementers’ Forum which represents a wide body of vendors (including Microsoft), in much the same way that the MIDI Manufacturers’ Association controls the MIDI spec, whereas MTP is entirely the creation of Microsoft. Furthermore, the fact that the only real reason for reinventing the wheel in this way is to allow for more Windows DRM is equally disturbing.

But as far as Microsoft’s “chain of trust”, while MTP is part of the overall DRM scheme, you don’t have to use it that way and it is a freely-available protocol spec — at least for the moment. Breaking the Windows Media Rights Management software (or FairPlay on the Apple side) violates the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, breaks the law, and (let’s face it) is pretty difficult to do anyway. MTP, on the other hand, you can use however you see fit, if you wanted to use it.

That’s a pretty big difference. And it means people who read the Boing Boing story who own MTP devices might think they have to use Windows Media Player to transfer music, or (even worse) that they have to use DRMed music. They don’t.

PK — iRiver released a firmware update because they saw the error of their ways and want to start a revolution: No, sorry, totally wrong. This is effectively what Boing Boing claimed in their article. In Cory Doctorow’s version of events, hackers made the iRiver players work with UMS instead of MTP to get around broken DRM technology, iRiver â€Å“took the hint,â€Â? and came to our rescue by throwing away its PlaysForSure specification and releasing an update to liberate its players so they work with UMS again. An interesting story â€â€? except it’s not true. There are two versions of the firmware (UMS and MTP) so that iRiver can sell to different markets, including Asian markets where people could care less about MTP because they have no reason to use it â€â€? i.e. they don’t have a Windows Media subscription store online. Yes, iRiver did give users a choice to switch back to UMS on the U10. But Boing Boing’s timing was off: they ran their story May 26, just as iRiver was pushing its updated version of the U10, the clix, which has zero UMS support, is entirely dependent on MTP for all transfers, DRMed subscription and otherwise, and even includes Windows Media Player 11 with a special version of MTV’s Urge service. Does that sound like a company gone rogue, sticking it to the Man by rejecting Microsoft’s DRM? Uh, no.

CD: The users were already hacking their players to support UMS when iRiver released its UMS switcher; they changed their position from “Switching to UMS voids your warranty” to “UMS is an officially sanctioned and supported activity.”

Yes, and that’s great. But I guess I’m just not as optimistic on this particular case study. I’d like to believe that DRM is failing in the marketplace, and that companies are backpedaling as a result. But here’s the other evidence in the iRiver case:

  1. The update doesn’t support all players and all sizes; on the contrary, it supports only a small subset. Most notably, the clix which is now iRiver’s most-hyped device can’t be switched to UMS mode. Given that the clix appears to be exactly the same hardware as the U10 it replaces (different storage size, but same internal chips), and the U10 supports this firmware switch while the clix does not, I’d say iRiver is going Microsoft’s way, not the user’s.

  2. The update is available only on iRiver’s global site. The first thing you see when you go to iriver.com is a page asking for your country. If you choose North America or Europe, you won’t even be able to download the firmware update that lets you switch between MTP and UMS. Only via the global support site can you even read up on the difference between UMS and MTP or get access to the UMS firmware. There’s no “beware of the leopard” sign; maybe we’ll leave that to Apple. (Sorry, Douglas Adams joke.)

  3. iRiver continues to advocate PlaysForSure. Whereas previous devices were loaded up with non-DRMed eMusic MP3 files, the clix now ships with a CD containing Windows Media Player 11 and pushing the DRM subscription-based Urge (MTV) music service.

The only thing likely to keep UMS alive on iRiver devices is that iRiver’s own jukebox software requires it. (So much for MTP implementations, I know.) But what seems to be happening is that iRiver is shipping UMS and their (admittedly horrendous) proprietary jukebox software for Asia, while limiting the US market increasingly to MTP and Windows Media Player. And it sounds like the newer the iRiver device, the more likely it is to be dependent on Windows Media Player. So you have to compare a single software update on their global support site to their entire hardware channel push in North America. Which do you think is more important?

Microsoft is, of course, rumored to be coming up with their own music player hardware, which could change the whole ballgame. This would provide further evidence that MS and Apple want total control over how we listen to music, and it would not only anger customers, but Microsoft’s vendors, as well. That is, if this happens at all.

This is a lot further into this than I originally intended to go, but Cory’s thoughts were provocative enough that I think they merited investigation. I don’t want to pretend to be an expert on these issues; I’m not. But I certainly am happy to get the opportunity to discuss them, so keep the comments coming.

I’ll close with this comment from reader Mies van der Robot on my last story, which I think really makes clear the difference between the loading mechanism and pipe (which in Microsoft’s case would be Windows Media Player and MTP) and the DRM software:

Your first paragraph is conflating two separate issues: the issue of proprietary loading mechanisms (e.g. iTunes the player, not to be confused with iTunes the store) with the more odious issue of players that lock out non-DRM music completely. The iPod/iTunes combination still works just fine with independently distributed music (in MP3, AAC, ALE, AIFF, or WAV format).

My iPod is filled with tunes purchased from Bleep.com, Kompakt.de, emusic.com, and other independent sites distributing DRM-free MP3s. Those tracks number in the hundreds. Number of iTunes Store tracks: 5.

Apple may not be actively promoting independent distribution, but they’re also not locking it out of the hardware. Yes, you’re dependent on iTunes as the â€Å“driverâ€Â? software, but lots of hardware uses proprietary single-vendor drivers. As long as the hardware’s driver permits you to load and listen to non-DRM music, I consider that to be open to independent distribution.

As several noted, Apple is actually slightly worse than Microsoft; MTP connection or no, in Windows at least you can still use the file system to add music to a player, and Microsoft is at least allowing greater vendor diversity on both the DRM and the connection. But the important point is that, until players start locking out non-DRM’ed music (at which point we will be in the streets, of course), you have a whole lot of options for how to get music onto your iPod or Windows Media player. And I think that’s a positive solution you can use for your own music and advocate to friends.

  • kokorozashi

    All this analysis is really beside the point. It's not Apple and Microsoft who are the control freaks. It's RIAA member companies, which are terrified of internet file sharing and mix CDs and any other method of distribution which doesn't intimately involve RIAA. Apple and Microsoft are just trying to satisfy RIAA's emotional needs. Splitting hairs over technical details is rearranging deck-chairs on the Titanic. The real problem originates within RIAA, is non-technical, and will not go away by evangelizing Apple and Microsoft, because if Apple and Microsoft don't coddle RIAA, RIAA will go to Real or someone else.

  • richardl

    > and can even get around iTunes entirely with third-party software.

    Entirely is a bit of an overstatement. You can not get around iTunes if you want to use content from Apple's iTunes Music Store.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Well, Apple and Microsoft are smart enough to "coddle" in a way that directly benefits them. Without DRM, you could buy online music from any store for the iPod . . . and your music collection could come with you if you bought a new player from a new vendor. With Microsoft, you might be able to switch product vendors (from Creative Labs to Samsung, for instance), but you're still tied to Windows and Windows Media Player.

    And the technical issues are really vital, because they determine to what extent users can choose between DRM'ed and non-DRM'ed music, whether they're locked into a player/delivery mechanism from a specific vendor, and how easy it is to choose non-DRM'ed music and alternative music vendors (online and off).

    There was a time when the RIAA was the only part of the problem, but now I think it's fair to say that the RIAA *and* Apple *and* Microsoft have become a problem. And they're all benefiting from added control, whether or not music consumers and musicians are.

    I don't think evangelizing MS and Apple will work, but I'm not sure evangelizing the RIAA is going to do much good, either. I think the advocacy window is musical consumers and the musicians themselves. Musicians aren't members of the RIAA, but they could, for instance, try to change the policies of groups that do represent musicians, like ASCAP. I think it should be possible to have strong copyright laws without handing over technological control to a few outlets, a move that's unlikely to benefit musicians.

  • Patrick

    It's worth noting that one of MS's standard tactics over the last decade has been to "adopt" an open or shared standard, add some proprietary spin to it, and thereby subvert and assert control over it. UMS/MTP isn't a picture-perfect case of this, but it's exactly the same mentality of coding "extensions" to a core technology which only work in Microsoft-land. While I agree there are many reasons to be suspicious of *both* Apple and MS in the evolving digital music world, Apple hasn't displayed such rapaciousness (at least more than sporadically) and in some small ways even works to mitigate it (at least outside of the music world).

  • kokorozashi

    I agree the technical issues are vital… but not essential. They are symptoms and effects, not diseases and causes. Apple would be more than happy to sell unencumbered MP3 files if RIAA would allow it. Remember Apple doesn't make significant money from iTMS — it's an iPod marketing exercise, not a revenue source. The proprietary file format is just an implementation detail of DRM in the age of DMCA. Is it good for musicians? Hell no. Customers will eventually be pissed off when they can't play the music they've bought, regardless of why. But, again, the root of the problem is RIAA, not Apple. I frankly don't think there is anything anyone can do about it. RIAA is too scared to do anything else but DRM no matter what anyone else says and customers haven't yet been burned massively. But when that happens, we'll see swift action, including the end of RIAA-as-we-know-it.

  • john

    I am anti-centralized control. Pro-open portable data formats. I will not buy into these DRM schemes. I am prepared to become a dinosaur and lose touch with the bulk of our unconscious unaware society. I'm tempted to throw everything away and go searching for a Buddhist temple in the Himalayas to sit and meditation or whatever it is they do.

    I see no advantage to the consumer or average person to have some centralized authority locking up our culture in a tight container and extracting a toll (tomorrow your blood? or your first born?). It's called "The Totalitarian Tiptoe". They say if you slowly turn up the heat on a frog in water, it won't realize that it's getting cooked until it's too late. The name of the game is total control. Don't make any mistake about it. They are patient and they will say anything to get that control. Rev 1 is still open. Rev 2 is more restrictive but still open. Rev 3 even more restrictive. Add in favorable legislation to redefine customers as criminals. Now maybe in Revision #4 it's locked up tight and totally illegal. And now we have a few of the ingredients for tyranny and unrestricted abuse of monopoly power. Don't forget to add in a multimillion dollar smear campaign to redefine normal people and normal terms as terrorists and criminals.

    Everyone has to make their own choice on these issues. They lost me and my dollars, and if they take away all the alternatives by hook and crook then I'll find another way to spend my time. You know right about now a long walk or bikeride in nature to reflect on the state of this world and society is sounding appealing.

  • Noich

    "On a basic level, I’m not saying anything different than what Cory originally did"

    I think the difference between you wrote and what Cory does is that you didn't reference something trivial and lame from Disney World or shamelessly plug your own books in your article.

  • http://www.audiodamage.com Chris Randall

    I second that.

    "Hey, read my hack-ass sci-fi novella for free (now translated in to Pirate Speak!), look at these pretty mouse ears made out of bendy straws, then revel in the absolutely astonishing amount of misinformation I spout about copyright, a subject on which I know suprisingly little, but still manage to make a living with. Look! I made a pirate cape out of Mickey Mouse ears, and published it under a Creative Commons license!"

    Mr. Doctorow's opinion means pretty much nothing to me, and I've long ago given up trying to sift fact from fiction in his lengthy ramblings on copyright. I mean, like, shit. Peter, if you're gonna argue with someone, pick someone on your mental plane, at least. Picking a fight with Cory is like kicking a puppy. It's fun for a minute, but eventually the neighbors are gonna call the SPCA.

  • valis

    I think that with the iTMS+iPod combination allowing the store to operate at very low profitability pretty much establishes the terms that Jobs negotiated with the major labels (and their 'representatives') for any other online storefront seeking to enter the same business, at least for the near future. The iTunes division can take this combination to the bank on iPod sales, but what is any other company to do with the same low margins? In the long run Amazon.com 'digital downloads' & Google 'music' might actually be able to compete with iTMS profit margins based on the breadth of their business but I really don't see that as a compelling alternative. Show me a large 'mainstream' online music shop where the niche material that they might offer isn't buried among all the other stuff in their database, or served up into a sidebar semi-randomly. Relying on the iTunes search function, google & yahoo for my future musical exporations doesn't exactly thrill me.

    In the physical world smaller businesses could offer music from a mainstream label just as easily as any Tower records just by ordering from a distributor, even if the small shop can't hit the same pricepoint based on volume. The HUGE mainstream store often fails for the odd obscure side project of a band member or a specific soundtrack request that just happens to be on a major label, so small shops in the local area were there to help, often with someone who could build connections from that request into obscure independant music. Independant releases are the small shop's bread & butter, but where's Peter Gabriel's Passion on Beatport or Bleep? Smaller online shops that tend to target ONLY their niche are great only if you're already looking for something they offer, as otherwise how do you find them?

    To a certain degree surfing XM and Online radio helps, but I have CD's in my collection I'd never have found if I had to sit & listen through everything else in the same genre. And since many of the smaller 'physical' shops have disappeared over the last 5-10 years it's not necessarily as easy to bump into that CD these days. 5 years ago Apple was still posturing themselves as the anti-DRM 'good guy' in the face of the evil MS 'longhorn' DRM that was making headlines. Funny that Apple happens to be in the driver seat now, and is also using DRM to slave their OS to Intel hardware to boot.

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  • http://www.musicthing.co.uk Tom

    The thing is, Apple MP3 players look nice.