My DRM-less Dream

A while ago my brother’s car was broken into. Among the items stolen was a copy of b(if)tek‘s 2020. Feeling that he already had the rights to the music, he looked in the usual places for an MP3 replacement. Unfortunately no buried treasure was found on the shores of the pirate bay. He then decided to look into more official channels, but I warned him of the perils involved in navigating their dangerous waters.

I have a dream. A dream of a music service unemcumbered by the poison of digital rights management. Where people can play a song not only on the computer they used to download it, but also on their laptop, their MP3 player, their car stereo and every other device they own.

I dream of a music service where I choose the format of the songs I download. A music service supporting every container and codec ever conceived.

I dream of a single, comprehensive music service, accessible by all, and providing the complete works of every man, woman and child who ever wrote a song.

Okay that’s enough postulating, here’s how I see this service working.

All music is stored on the servers in FLAC format. When a user buys a song they choose which format they want it in, be it FLAC itself, MP3, Vorbis, AAC, RealAudio, or even Speex (for audio books or spoken word). The server will then encode it on the fly with their chosen settings (bitrate, channels etc). The resulting file will then be cached for anyone else who requests it.

I realise that the CPU load on the server will be significant. People do not want to wait for songs to encode, they want to start downloading instantly. It would probably be better to pre-encode using the most common formats with typical settings, but on the fly encoding appeals to me. There is also an advantage to giving the customer complete control over the format they have chosen. A mix of pre-encoding at typical settings but also allowing custom encoding would be best.

Technical issues aside, it seems I am not alone in this DRM-less dream. Several people have already beaten me to it. You can find a comprehensive list at wikipedia. eMusic is currently the most popular DRM-free music service. They have a wide range of independent artists but unfortunately they only offer songs in MP3 format, and I’m a Vorbis fan.

The service I am most interested in is Magnatune. Although it sounds like a Mitsubishi repair centre, it is actually an independent music label of sorts. It supports a wide variety of formats, including MP3, Vorbis and FLAC.

Instead of a fixed price per song like iTunes or eMusic, Magnatune lets the customers decide how much they want to pay. The minimum is five united states dollars per album. Interestingly, most people usually pay more than the minimum. The artist and Magnatune split the takings fifty fifty. That means the artist gets a minimum of two fifty per album – more than they would get from a traditional record company.

Another interesting aspect of Magnatune is its use of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license for the music it provides. This means all music on the site is free for non-commercial use, such as adding backgound music to your latest podcast. You must pay the artist for commercial use, such as adding a soundtrack to a movie or commercial.

Magnatune’s biggest hurdle on the path to success is getting enough popular artists onto its books. Whereas eMusic has achieved critical mass, Magnatune is still refining the uranium. All it could take is one underground hit and the chain reaction may start. Now where’d I put that 303…

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