When DRM Key Servers Vanish, Where Do Users Turn?

On the surface this sounds a bit distressing, but further examination reveals the fact that the 5 computers that MSN Music purchasers use also includes future updates. In essence, if someone is upgrading from Windows XP to Vista (an example Bennnet uses in his email) that counts as another computer. So anyone who is using XP after August 31 won't be able to upgrade their computer to the new operating system and still listen to the music on the computer via the MSN Music service.

So what are the options? They don't look very attractive: first, never update the computer operating system, which might sound appealing with Vista's lack of adoption but might not look so appealing when the next operating system rolls around; this option in essence assumes that a computer is like a consumer electronic device where the music is locked to the machine.

"If you have already played a given song on a computer, then you have successfully obtained the license key for that song," Bennett notes, adding the confusing doublespeak that "MSN Music keys do not expire. If you intend to transfer a previously downloaded song to a new computer (or an existing computer with a new operating system, such as an upgrade from Windows XP to Windows Vista) within the maximum allowed limit of 5 computers, please do so before August 31, 2008. You will need to obtain a license key for each of your songs downloaded from MSN Music on any new computer, and you must do so before August 31, 2008. If you attempt to transfer your songs to additional computers after August 31, 2008, those songs will not successfully play."

A second option is to burn those files to a CD, which effectively strips the DRM and allows content to be imported in to iTunes or other competing music libraries. Bennett's email specifically mentions "backing up" content to audio CD (somewhat ironically, since it occurred in the same week that fellow label EMI is pushing forward with an appeal over the use of online backup services such as MP3Tunes.com, challenging the legality of backing up music purchased online).

"This is also a good time to remind you that you can back up and secure your music by burning your purchased songs and playlists to CD," Bennett says. "With Windows Media Player, you can burn your own Audio CDs from the music stored in your library."

In most cases, making a backup version of downloaded audio content is permitted. "I think consumers at large are very savvy about how to burn their digital music to CD and every major music service in business today offers this feature for content where the label is allowing burning," said Christopher Levy, CEO of BuyDRM.com, a company that sells DRM solutions. "Because of the volatile nature of electronic devices, it just makes sense to backup digital music to CD and modern DRM platforms like the one MSN Music deployed support this. While an unfortunate event, MSN Music has taken the high road in how they have handled their turn down."

Consumers Express Concerns
Reaction, not surprisingly, ranges from outrage to irony, though perhaps disproportionate in relation to the actual impact of the announcement, as MSN hasn't sold music for nearly two years. Still, if you count slashdotting or digging (the act of having your topic show up on slashdot.org or digg.com, respectively) as a measure of interest, this MSN Music announcement is through the roof.

"How long till they do the same thing to the 'new' music store?" said poster Milo_Hoffman on the arstechnica forums. "Start the countdown now, because Microsoft now has a history of leaving people in the lurch . . . on stuff they paid money for. You would have to be an idiot to use the 'new' store after they have shown what they will do to their customers."

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