May 30, 2024

Apples, Oranges, and DRM

Last week reported on its testing of portable music players, which showed that playing DRM (copy-protected) songs drained battery power 25% faster in Windows Media players, and 8% faster on iPods, than playing the same songs using the unprotected MP3 format. As more information came to light, it became clear that they hadn’t done a completely fair apples-to-apples comparison, and the story faded from view.

Critics pointed out that the story compared DRMed files at one level of compression to MP3 files at a different level of compression – the DRMed files were just bigger, so of course they would eat more battery power. It’s a valid criticism, but we shouldn’t let it obscure the real issue, because the battery-life story has something to teach us despite its flaws.

Different file formats offer different tradeoffs between storage space, battery life, and audio quality. And, of course, audio quality is not a single dimension – some dimensions of quality may matter more to you than to me. Your preference in formats may be different from mine. It may even be different from the preference you had last week – maybe you care more about storage space this week, or more about battery life, because you’ll be listening to music more, with fewer opportunities to recharge.

This is where DRM hurts you. In the absence of DRM, you’re free to store and use your music in the format, and the level of compression, that suits your needs best. DRM takes away that option, giving you only one choice, or at most a few choices. That leaves you with a service that doesn’t meet your needs as well as a non-DRM one would.

Grocery stores know the true point of the apples-to-oranges comparison. Apples and oranges are different. Some customers want one and some want the other. So why not offer both?


  1. Mr. Rat:

    No, I don’t. I agree with Cory Doctorow’s observation that people are not actively looking for opportunities to do less with their music.

    Nonetheless, you said that “the only nonDRM choice is file sharing […] its the only way to get nonDRM products.” In order to make this true, you have to qualify it a bit more.

  2. Seth Schoen:

    Yeah but say a song was on iTunes both with DRM and without DRM, same price, same everything…

    – do you really think people would chose the DRM version?

  3. Mr. Rat:

    It looks like this sometimes does happen because people are purchasing tracks on the iTunes Music Store (for example) that are also available on CDDA. You can still get almost all mainstream commercialized music on CD.

  4. Everyone who visits this website probably know about the paper below, but just in case, here it is.

    Circumventing Competition: The Perverse Consequences of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act by Timothy B. Lee

  5. Are you suggesting that some people would chose DRM protected goods if they had a legitimate choice to purchase nonDRM goods – I doubt it.

    At the moment the only nonDRM choice is file sharing and I reckon many people select that not because its free (although thats surely a bonus) but because its the only way to get nonDRM products.

    I agree with your general sentiments but dont think anyones really going to chose oranges over apples – DRM only serves the interests of RIAA/MPAA – it holds no real benefit for the consumer.

  6. The thing that continues to amaze me is that, as an Amazon prime member, I can have non-DRM’d uncompressed “wav files” (effectively) delivered to my door overnight for $4 extra. A well-mastered CD at 44.1kHz and 16 bits is still almost all you need. I’m not going to stop buying real CDs anytime soon. It’s amazing how much relatively low-tech infrastructure wrapped around yesterday’s solution can make it a real contender.

    I do, of course, buy the stuff I can get in FLAC at

    Fortunately for the recording industry, I’m not the typical consumer for the online music services.

  7. With the plethora of PR and market economy mistakes the RIAA and MPAA have made in the last 10 years, I’m quite surprised they haven’t learned from each other’s errors.

    You make an excellent point which the RIAA has ignored: CDs give consumers more value than legally or illegally download content. This applies not only to how consumers can use the content, but also to the audio quality they get. What baffles me is that they complain about lagging CD sales while they have not advertised the fact that CDs offer more inherent value to the consumer.

    This is even more puzzling when you realize that the vast majority of pirated music available on the internet is not wav/aiff/lossless CD quality audio. Since it is DRM free it offers more interoperability than music with DRM bought from an online store, but it pales in comparison to the quality of CDs.

    Then you realize the MPAA hasn’t learned from the RIAA’s silence. Their insistence on HDCP protected content for digital HD content is flat out stupid. As evidenced by the current quality of pirated music, the pirates obviously do NOT care about the quality of the content. Limiting output to a non-HDCP compliant input to 480p is still higher quality than most of the pirates would distribute anyway.

    The solution for the RIAA and the MPAA is simple: advertise the quality. Hopefully this would convince itunes to offer lossless versions of their content, at least then I might buy something from them.

  8. The French decision to “open” the iPod sparked a solution to the DRM issue. To explain where I am coming from, I am against DRM. Basically the content companies promoting DRM believe they have a right to modify your computer to guarantee their profits, to limit how you use your computer, and to hijack your computer for their benefit. Companies should NOT be allowed to install DRM technologies on your computer. Computers should only use “open source” standards for all content.

    That said, the discussion on deploying DRM should NOT be limited to the question of how to get it to work on a personal computer, but how to deploy DRM in the least offensive manner.

    The solution, if a company wants to deploy a DRM based technology, they should do it through their own developed proprietary hardware, such as a device similar to an iPod. One could call this approach a win-win based on the fact that the content companies get to deploy their DRM without infringing on your computer. The downside of course is that if you buy DRM based content that you will be fiddling with a plethora of proprietary gadgets. But then you can’t have everthing.

  9. Sell the music copyleft, in lossless FLAC format, with no DRM and then everyone is happy.

    People can convert it into any format they choose whatever quality/size/performance tradeoff they need.

  10. I’m sure your local friendly music store will be quite happy to sell an extra copy with different characteristics.