Ypsilanti library still wrong on downloadable audio books

Several years ago the Ypsilanti Public Library starting offering its users access to downloadable audio books through a service called Netlibrary.com.  Unfortunately that service was riddled with DRM that wasn’t compatible with anything but Windows computers and PlaysForSure media players. Anyone using an iPod or a Mac was out of luck.  At least that service offered a choice of a couple of thousand titles and with a bit of tweaking the DRM could be stripped so that the files could be played on any device.

The library has now switched to different service that is apparently compatible with all platforms including iPods. Unfortunately, it is even less useful than the Netlibrary system. The service offers a grand total of 64 titles. That’s not a typo, it’s 64 titles. Loans are only available for one week at time and each title is only available to one user at a time. These are digital files, why are they only accessible to one person at a time? This is absolutely ridiculous.  Why even bother to offer a download service with so few titles? It seems like a complete waste of time and money.  If the library is not going to get serious about actually making downloadable content useful to patrons, it should just quit trying.

No zunes here

If you’re in the market for a digital music player this season, I would strongly recommend avoiding the new Zune from Microsoft at all costs. Even if you’re one of those people who doesn’t like the ipod (and there are some of you out there, although I’m still not sure why) don’t buy a Zune, there are other choices. Aside from all the technical reasons which I’ll get to in a minute, the absolute most important reason not to buy a Zune is Doug Morris. Doug is the CEO of Universal Music Group, the largest record label on the planet. He has managed to extort Microsoft into paying UMG at least $1 and maybe more for every Zune they sell. This is not for the actual music, since you don’t get any for that money. This is essentially a protection racket. At the launch of the Zune Morris said “These devices are just repositories for stolen music, and they all know it,” when talking about digital music players. How much do you want to bet that no musician ever sees a dime of that money?

In addition, between Microsoft and the record companies they’ve managed to strangle the only potentially noteworthy feature of the Zune, it’s wireless capabilities. The device has built in Wifi so you can share music with other Zune owners. However, when you send a song to someone they can only listen to it three times or for three days whichever comes first. After that the song is gone. You can’t however use the wireless to get online and buy the song directly from the player, you can’t use it to sync the player to your computer, you can’t do anything else with it. It’s a complete waste of space and battery life. The Zune is also a victim of drm in another way. If you have bought any music online from iTunes or any other store that sells copy protected song files (such as Napster or MSN or Real) you won’t be listening to those songs on the Zune. After pushing a scheme called “Plays for Sure” (it should have been labeled PlaysMaybe) for the past couple of years, the Zune uses a new completely incompatible scheme. So you can either violate the DMCA and crack your old music, or start all over again.

Overall the whole device is so indebted to the big record labels that combined with all the technical problems described all over the net in the last couple of weeks, the insane drm just makes it more trouble than it’s worth. I would recommend that you vote with your money and buy any other player and also refuse to buy any CDs or music downloads that are copy protected. Demonstrate to the big labels and the bands that are associated with them that you want to buy music at a reasonable price, and only buy from places like EMusic, Mp3Tunes, AudioLunchbox and MaganTune. They sell straight up MP3s with no DRM. If the bands want your money they should sell the same way. Doug Morris has enough money and he should not be in charge of what we listen to, where we listen and how.

Want to buy an online music store?

It looks like Napster is up for sale. The original Napster was the first big peer to peer music file sharing system and was hugely popular at the time. Of course in spite of the big record companies relentlessly suing music fans as well as kids, grandmothers, and people who don’t even have computers, more files are being shared than ever. Over time the original Napster went belly up, the name was bought and applied to an actual licensed online music store. Unfortunately for the new owners of the name, between the time Napster became a household name and the time they launched Napster 2.0, the iPod had begun its rise to digital music dominance and nothing that Napster offered for sale could be played on any iPod. This is because they chose to sell music equipped with Microsoft DRM which was compatible with most of the portable digial music players on the market but not with any of the ones that most people actually wanted to buy. The other problem they have is that the wholesale prices that the big four labels charge for digital downloads is so high ($0.70 /song) that after marketing, bandwidth, and credit card transaction costs, most music stores that sell major label music have no realistic hope of ever breaking even, much less being profitable. The one exception is Apple. They have manageed to break even on the iTunes store. They however make very healthy profits on the iPod. By having the most desirable product at a relatively competitive price, they sell huge quantities of high margin hardware and at the same time dominate the barely break-even digital download business because their’s is the only store with major label songs that is DRM compatible with their hardware.

The only way to compete effectively with iTunes is to sell music compatible with the iPod. Given that Apple so fair has declined to license their DRM scheme to any other store, the way to do this is to skip the DRM. This of course also means skipping the major label music. To me this is no great loss. The number 2 online music store now is EMusic. Emusic sells music from independent bands and labels with higher bit-rate files than iTunes and no DRM. Because there is no DRM, the mp3 files from emusic can be played on any device from any manufacturer. By all appearances emusic is actually a viable business in spite of shunning the big labels and selling at a fraction of the price of their competitors ($.25/song or less).

Napster on the other hand has been a money loser every quarter since they started and see’s no realistic hope of profit int the foreseeable future. In light of all this, the management of Napster has decided to put the company up for sale. Anybody want to make an offer?

Creative Commons

There was a time not so long ago when if someone produced a creative work such as a book, movie, a piece of music or any number of other types, they were able to register a copyright on that work and have a monopoly on profiting from that work for a limited number of years. This concept was set down in the US Constitution. This was a good idea, because it encouraged creators to produce new works. They could make a living by producing and selling new works without having to find a patron to support them like artists did prior to that time. By limiting the time of the copyright they were also encouraged to produce new works, because they couldn’t live off the old ones forever. Once the copyright expired, the work would become part of the public domain and anyone could copy it and produce derivative works without seeking permission. This is all perfectly reasonable. However, over the last half century more and more of the creative works have come to be owned and controlled by an increasingly small number of increasingly large companies. Because of their size these companies such as Sony, TimeWarner, Disney, NewsCorp and others have the resources to fund political campaigns and lobbyists. In the last three decades this has resulted in the gradual strangulation of the media commons and the public domain.

They have gotten the copyright laws changed from and opt-in regime to an opt-out regime. Previously a work was public domain unless the creator registered a copyright. Now a work is automatically copyrighted unless the creator puts it into the public domain. The terms of copyrights are now extended beyond all reason as well. At one time, a copyright owned by a company would last for 14 years. The most recent extension in the late ninties has brought that up to 95 years. Individual authors have their lifetime plus 70 years. Coincidentally the last two extensions have occured just as the Disney copyright on Mickey Mouse was about to expire and only after intense lobbying by Disney in congress. These extensions mean that few of the works created in the past century are moving into the public domain. Disney has spent enormous sums of money to strangle the public domain while profiting handsomely from it. Animated movies such as the Hunchback of Notre Dame and Treasure planet are based on stories that are in the public domain.

In an attempt to reverse this trend a few years ago Stanford University Law professor Lawrence Lessig came up with the concept of the creative commons license. A copyright holder has the right to license their works to others while they still control the copyright. What Creative Commons does is provide a series of graduated licenses with various restrictions that creators can use and apply to their works. If someone creates a song or short film, they can apply a creative commons license to it and give it away or sell or do whatever they want. For example you can use the non-commercial, share-alike, attribution license. In this case other people can share your work but they can’t sell or use it for commercial purpose without permission, and they have to provide attribution to where it came from. They can also create derivative works without permission but under the same set of restrictions. If you release a song under this license someone else can remix and share it under the same license but they have to provide attribution to the original creator. There is also a no derivative license, or you can skip the share-alike which allows others to re-distribute derivatives under a different license and so on.

There is one common element to all the creative commons licenses though. If you are redistributing someone else’s work, you cannot add any copy restrictions that weren’t originally there without the creators permission. That means you cannot take a band’s creative commons licensed song and add DRM without asking. This is where the Microsoft Zune that I wrote about the other day comes in. The song sharing feature that will be the main selling point of the Zune explicitly violates the creative commons license. When one Zune owner sends a song to another Zune, a new layer of DRM automatically added to the file before it is sent. This is what prevents the recipient from listening to the song more than three times or for more than three days. It doesn’t matter what the source of the original song was, this DRM layer is added. If I send a song from the band Lorenzo’s Music to another Zune player, DRM is added. About a year ago, the band decided to license all of their music under Creative Commons and make MP3s available for download from their site. It is a violation of their license to added DRM before sharing their music. Of course the RIAA doesn’t care if you violate someone else’s license as long as you don’t even think about violating theirs.

A lot of bands have decided give away their music for free under creative commons because they have realized they can get more fans and exposure and ultimately make more money if more people hear their music. I urge you to find creative commons music and other works and support these artists, and don’t give your money to Microsoft.

Don’t sign up for Amazon Unbox!!

Last week Amazon introduced their new movie download service called Amazon Unbox. This is a service that should be avoided at all costs. Amazon has created a service that can’t be used unless you are using windows. If you are using Linux or Mac OS you are in luck because the service doesn’t work with these systems. The terms of service that Amazon has come up with are completely unacceptable. You should go over to BoingBoing and read this analysis that Cory Doctorow wrote up. In order to watch the movies you have to download some software from amazon. The software monitors your computer and if you try to delete the software you won’t be able to watch the movies you “bought”. Amazon also explicitly prohibits the “buyer” from watching the movies in places like hotel rooms, hospital rooms, or other non-residential locations. So if you go on a trip with your laptop, you better not watch your movies. If you go on a road trip you can’t let kids watch the movies in the back seat of the car. Amazon also reserves the right to change their terms whenever they feel like it. All this for a price about the same as what you pay for a physical DVD that you can do whatever you want with (well at least as long as you are willing to violate the DMCA, but that’s another story).

With bright ideas like this it’s no wonder the mainstream entertainment industry is going down the toilet.

Google books

Google made their reputation by indexing the content of the the internet. They’ve done some truly remarkable things with search. Their pagerank system although far from perfect does provide some great results. Some time ago they announced a project in conjunction with five of the largest university libraries including the University of Michigan to scan all the books in their collections and index the content. This project has been highly controversial. It has been attacked by publishers because some of the books to be scanned are still under copyright. It has also been attacked by librarians and others because this project is being undertaken by a private company (I know google is a public company, but I use private here to distinguish from a public entity like a government). Their is a lot of concern that a project like this will have a negative impact on physical libraries. I don’t think that is a really legitimate concern. There will will always be a place for actual libraries with with physical books. People like to read books. They like to sit on the beach, or deck, or under a tree or in bed and hold a book and read. There is also a social aspect to libraries that can never be completely replaced by the virtual world of the internet. Although the net can bring together communities of people who are widely geographically dispersed, people still need physical interaction with other people in the community and with librarians and teachers.

There is also concern about a private entity like google controlling all this data. This is, I think a more legitimate concern. If something were to happen to google what happens to all the scanned books? I like the idea of this project. Google has evidently developed some amazing scanning and character recognition technology as can be seen in this image from 1984. They have developed a mechanism that allows them to scan the pages without damaging some of the very old and rare volumes. The idea of a digital version of the great library of Alexandria would be a great way of preserving human culture. Perhaps if google were to put the raw data into the public domain, allowing anyone to access and index it, this concern could be addressed. Beyond the actual scanning technology, one unique thing that google adds is their indexing and searching capability. If the raw scans were available to everyone, than other companies could develop and apply their own search and display engines. I don’t agree with the idea of a private entity controlling so much of human culture. Their is a very interesting discussion on this whole topic on a recent Open Source, that included Siva Vaidhyanathan and a rep from Google.

All Hail the RIAA!

Oh thank you gods of the RIAA! Previously, the recording industry has indicated in court filings that they didn’t consider ripping of cds to mp3 players to be fair use. That means that if you go to a record store and buy a CD they think it is illegal for you to make a copy for listening to on your digital audio player. Now they are saying that they are OK with it even though they still consider it illegal. How kind of them. I say screw them. Before you buy a CD or a song from a on-line music store check the label. If the label is a member of the RIAA, put it back and go find something from an independent label instead. There is a ton of great music out there. Support lesser known musicians instead of overpaid executives who add nothing to the creative process. Go browse through some of the DRM free music stores linked in the sidebar. Browse for musical styles you like and listen to the previews. Try some music podcasts to find new music. Just don’t buy from the big guys. They already have enough of your money.

Using DRM more expensive than losses it’s supposed to prevent?

In case you haven’t heard, last week Sony officially announced a six month delay in the launch of the Playstation 3. Who cares you might ask? Well as far as the game console itself is concerned I don’t because I have no intention of buying one. However, from another perspective this case demonstrates again that the cost of trying to protect content with Digital Restrictions Management (DRM, and that is what it is regardless of the fact that the manufacturers call it digital rights management) may actually be greater than the privacy losses it is supposed to prevent. One of the most touted features of the PS3 is that it is equipped with a Blu-Ray drive, one of the two new competing but completely incompatible high-definition dvd formats (think VHS vs Beta for the digital age). I am not going to get into the whole HD-DVD BluRay fiasco in this post, other than to say that both new formats have been repeatedly delayed by disagreements over many factors including the DRM schemes to be used on the disks. When Sony made their announcement last week they stated the delay in finalizing the drm standard for Blu-Ray disks as the main reason for the delay. Sony said that the introductory price of the PS3 would be about 50,000 Yen in Japan (about $425US). They also expect to sell about one million units a month. So a six month delay means 6 million lost sales at that price amounts 20 over $2.5 billion in lost revenues. Game console makers also get a significant royalty from the game publishers (about $10-15 per game copy) for every copy of a game sold. Add to that all the extra revenue (and huge profit margins) on all the accessories like extra controllers, multi-taps, etc. Sony is looking at somewhere between $3-4 billion in lost revenues just from the 6 month delay. When you consider that this November will be a full year after the introduction of the XBOX 360, the real losses are probably closer to twice that much.

So Sony is willing to sacrifice somewhere between $3 and $7 billion in sales just so they can implement a stronger DRM system. Interestingly, the actual number of game sales lost due to piracy is actually very small because playing copied games on a PS2 requires actually physically modifying the console. The number of people actually willing to do this modification, is likely in the thousands at most, with the potential lost sales actually in the low millions of dollars, several orders of magnitude less than what the drm system is costing them.

Sony is shooting themselves in the head to avoid a purse-snatcher. Real Smart!

Yet another reason to avoid anything with DRM

I spotted an interesting article today via Boingboing. If you have a digital audio player such as an ipod or other mp3 player, and you listen to music that has been copy protected, your battery life can be drastically reduced. When music stores add drm to a song they encrypt it with a digital key. In order for a device to reproduce the music it must first decrypt the file and then play it. Every digital audio player has a microprocessor embedded in it, the device is basically a small computer. The process of decrypting is actually very processor intensive. The harder a processor is working, the more power it is using. If you are listening to a song purchased from iTunes, Napster, Rhapsody, Sony, or any of the other stores that sell copy protected music. In an article over on CNET they discovered from testing various music players, that devices playing songs encoded with Microsoft’s WMA 10 drm they lost up to 25% of battery life compared to playing un-protected mp3 files. Apple uses a different drm scheme called Fairplay on there AAC music files. Only ipods can play these files and are optimized for them. Compared to straight mp3 the ipods had about 8% less battery life.

How do you avoid this extra battery drain? Don’t give your money to music stores that sell copy protected files. There are plenty of stores that sell unprotected mp3 files (usually at higher bit rates too) like emusic.com, mp3tunes.com and magantune.com. Of course you probably won’t find the likes of Britney Spears and other current top 40 hits at those stores, but I personally consider that to be a positive. Go check out these stores. Browse around and listen to the samples. Discover some new music. Support the artists (because itunes and other drm stores sure don’t). You also get the benefit of being able to play these mp3 files on any device rather than being locked into a specific brand.

Plugging the Analog hole and the threat to democracy!

Ed Felten is a professor of computer science and public affairs at Princeton University. Prof. Felten has done a lot analysis of copy protection schemes (and I use the word schemes in the negative sense, as in schemes to sell snake oil). Over the years he has been sued several times by companies trying to prevent him publishing the results of his studies. Prof. Felten is not an advocate of piracy or a thief. He is not trying to sell anything to anyone. All he is trying to do is inform the public about technology that affects them. Unfortunately this sort of public discussion, about “content protection technologies” is explicitly prohibited by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act which I personally think is unconstitutional, and is definitely one of the worst pieces of legislation ever passed by the United States Congress. Because of the ridiculous provisions in this law, companies have tried to stymie public discussion of flaws in their products.

As we move to a point in time when the current analog tv signals are permanently turned off (currently scheduled for the end of 2008) people who still have current non-digital tv sets will need new digital to analog converter boxes. This point where the digital signal is converter so that it can be viewed is known as the analog hole. This conversion point can be used to copy this digital content. The big media companies desperately want to keep people from copying this content and bypassing their revenue stream. As part of this effort they have enlisted two of their congressional lackeys, James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin and John Conyers of Michigan to sponsor their Digital Transition Content Security Act. It is interesting that congressmen from WI and MI get such a disproportionate amount of their campaign financing from big entertainment companies, you would think that they would get most of their money from cheese and car companies. The MPAA and RIAA and their friends are the top contributor to Sensenbrenner and no 2 contributor to Conyers.

Prof. Felten has a very interesting post here about a big hole in the anti-analog hole legislation. Basically they want to make an exemption to the protection schemes for “Professional Equipment”. They need this so that the creators of the content can actually copy and create the content. A potential side-effect of this exemption and the way it is worded is that it would close off access to content creation technologies to amateur creators. Besides causing trouble for people who just want to edit their home videos in iMovie, it also potentially closes off access for citizen media to compete with the “mainstream media”(MSM). Given the sorry state of MSM today and the desperate need we have for alternative sources of news, this is a very major problem. Without blogs and podcasts and videocasts, we would be left with the likes of Fox News, and Judith Miller and Bob Woodward. The sources of information would be controlled by a few huge companies and their lackeys in government.

The most essential element to a truly functional democracy, is an informed populace. Without accurate information, people can’t make wise decisions. Forget about piracy. That is just a bogus argument about money and who gets to collect it. Currently that is the distributors of the content, not the creators. The technology we have today is finally allowing the content creators to start profiting from their work, rather than some middleman.

The reason why DRM must be eliminated is because it a grave threat to democracy. Information must be free to flow! People need access to information of all kinds in order for democracy to thrive. We must not let swine like Conyers and Sensenbrenner contribute to the smothering of democracy. Contact these fools and give them a piece of your mind!