An Open Letter to Microsoft - Why you shouldn't kill FairUse4WM

We know that you're already probably working to fix the, um, hole that's been discovered in Windows DRM 10/11, but we're going to ask you this anyway: please don't stop consumers from using FairUse4WM to remove copy protection from music they've downloaded.

We understand why you put DRM on these files in the first place – the major labels won't grant you (or rather the companies that are using your DRM) a license to sell their music without it – but there are some good reasons why you should let this one slide.

For starters, it'll actually make consumers more likely to buy music and sign up for subscription services like Napster To Go and Rhapsody To Go. This sounds counterintuitive, but it's not. Being able to strip out the DRM on a file actually makes it more useful – and thus more valuable – for the consumer.

Shortly after posting the news, we got a slew of messages from readers and friends telling us they were signing up with a PlaysForSure service provider because they were no longer worried about being able to play the songs they've downloaded on their MP3 player. Since you can already get the same music for free if using P2P networks, all DRM does is make it harder for honest consumers to enjoy the music they're paying for. It's difficult to justify paying for a less useful version of a song when with a little effort you can find it elsewhere in a non-copy protected format.

We're big fans of the subscription services, here at Engadget, but let's face facts: the damn things don't work very well. It's pretty easy to download tracks, but it's a serious pain in the ass to successfully transfer them to a portable device. The only way for DRM to be successful is if it's painless and seamless, and we get tons of emails from consumers complaining about how hard it is to get Napster, Rhapsody, Yahoo Music Unlimited, etc. tracks on to their players, or, god forbid, Macs.

Are a lot of people going to pay $15 to sign up for a subscription service, download a ton of music, and then cancel a month later? Absolutely, but that's not a big deal. Those people were never, ever going to sign up for a service that offers locked down music anyway, so be happy that you squeezed any money out of them at all. (Yeah, this does make it tougher to offer free, unlimited trials, but that's not the end of the world.) Could those same people then put all the music they've just downloaded up on the P2P networks? Sure, but all that music is available there anyway, so it shouldn't make a bit of difference in the grand scheme of things.

So just try and look the other way this time. We've been on the verge of canceling our subscription services for a couple of months now (too many snafus involving DRM licenses and device syncing), but FairUse4WM has changed our minds now that we can actually download music with the confidence that we'll be able to enjoy it. Does the fact that we could quit and "keep" the music that we've been "renting" a problem? Theoretically, but what's going to keep consumers paying those monthly fees isn't the threat of losing access to their collection (though that's part of it); what keeps them paying is the continuing access to a large, frequently updated catalog of new releases and older tunes. DRM makes paying for music less attractive than stealing it; FairUse4WM flips that around and makes paying for music more attractive since you can more easily play the music you've purchased on the device of your choice.

Without a doubt you guys in Redmond are getting an earful from the record labels. You promised them a secure system, and you failed. They might already be threatening to withdraw their licenses for their music, but here's where you have to stand up and explain to the labels why they need to chill. Send Steve or Bill or J or whomever to smooth things over. We aren't assuming this is going to be an easy thing to make happen, but c'mon, you guys are /Microsoft/, if any company has the clout to make this happen and drag the entertainment industry into the 21st century, it's you. The music industry needs to accept that there is always going to be a certain amount of piracy, and then just get on with the business of selling digital. Let 'em keep the DRM in place if they want – we can all pretend that it still works -- just make it possible for anyone who really wants to get rid of it to take that extra step.

Besides, whether the RIAA likes it or not (or realizes it or not), you'll be doing the right thing for both consumers and the music business. (And isn't that the point of all this?) FairUse4WM means that all our PlaysForSure tracks will actually play for sure, so please don't go and spoil it.


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