When was the last time you returned home from the shops, clutching a new cellophane-wrapped CD album? Or perhaps your local postman recently slid a CD or 2 through your door. Whatever the case, you were probably entertaining thoughts of taking that shiny new album and importing it into your ever-growing iTunes library. But, alas, you can’t… Because that’s now illegal. (again).
Let’s backtrack a little to October of last year, when, 13 years after the launch of iTunes (arguably the world’s most popular music management application), the government introduced a law that permitted UK citizens to make copies of CDs, DVDs, Blu-Ray media and eBooks strictly for personal use, and to store them either locally or in the cloud. Keep in mind that when iTunes launched, there was no iTunes store – and digital downloads were few and far between. The only way for an individual to get music into the library was by transferring content from their CD collection – which, until 2014, was technically illegal.
Of course, such data was strictly only for personal use, sharing such data with friends and family was certainly not permitted. But that’s totally understandable – and even the minister for intellectual property approved of the new legislation – stating that “”These changes are going to bring our IP [intellectual property] laws into the 21st century”.
So what’s changed? Well, thanks to a legal challenge from BASCA (the British Academy of Songwriters Composers and Authors), the Musicians’ Union, and industry representatives UK Music, the 2014 legislation, dubbed “Copyright and Rights in Performances (Personal Copies for Private Use) Regulations 2014”, has been overturned in the high court.
According to an estimate by UK music, the regulations introduced in 2014 would result in a loss of revenue for rights owners in the creative sector totalling some £58m a year. Unless of course, a ‘compensation scheme’ was introduced.
Ah, compensation… the music industry professionals’ favourite word. Don’t get me wrong – as an artist myself, I firmly believe that should an artists copyright be infringed, they have the right to fair compensation. But is preventing those who purchase music in physical form ripping their own media going to solve the problem? I think not.
It is important to note at this point that although the legislation not only covers Audio but also films and eBooks, the remainder of this post will focus on music alone.
Let’s consider for a moment how the copying of media could result in a loss. It’s simple really – most applications designed to allow the user to transfer music and films into their libraries do so in an unprotected manner. That is to say that the resulting digital files do not feature a protection known as DRM (or digital rights management), which is a digital signature often used by digital download services to prevent users sharing their downloaded files with others or playing back the content on unauthorised devices. This means that should a user choose to, for example, rip a CD, they will be able to freely use the resulting digital files – including making unlimited copies, playing them back on unauthorised devices or sharing them with friends, family or indeed the entire world.
It goes without saying that should unscrupulous users take advantage of this freedom for their own gain, whether that be monetary gain or simply a gain in popularity, this can have a serious impact on an artist. The artist loses money, resulting in their label, management, and other associated parties losing money, and soon everything spirals out of control. But is CD ripping entirely to blame? And is it right to penalise those of us who own a CD collection? Of course not.
Digital downloads also pose a similar risk. In the early days of the iTunes store, without doubt the most popular online music store, the tracks you purchased and subsequently downloaded were protected by the aforementioned DRM digital signature. This meant that they couldn’t be copied, shared, or used in illegal ways without the need to crack the DRM through the use of conversion programs (more on that later).
However, then came iTunes Plus – an enhanced delivery format for songs and music videos which does not feature DRM protection. All songs and videos for sale in the iTunes store are now in iTunes Plus format, which is nothing more than apple’s AAC format. However their lack of DRM protection means that, if I were to download an album from the iTunes store, I am technologically able to share, copy, and distribute it just as i could if I were to purchase and rip the physical version.
Let’s look at other download services. Ever purchased a digital track or album directly from an artists online store? Or perhaps you’re a vinyl collector like myself, and you own an album or too containing a digital download card with an access code allowing you to obtain the digital version of the album. How are those files delivered?
That’s right, in an unprotected, DRM-Free audio format. Usually 320KBpS MP3, though occasionally such files are delivered as lossless WAV or FLAC files, or even in some cases as high-resolution audio files.
Perhaps I’m missing something. But unless i’m very much mistaken, there is no difference between these files and the files that would result from my ripping a CD. Were os so inclined, I could easily share these files with my family, friends or indeed the internet, and doing so would even mean less time and effort on my part, as there would be no need for me to manually rip the CD in question and tag the files.
Now let’s look at the ever-growing streaming service. Sure, the advent of services such as Spotify, tidal and the recently launched ‘Apple Music’ have aided tremendously in preventing piracy. Spotify especially, with their ad-supported free plan has enabled many who were previously pirates to convert to a fully legal, industry-approved streaming service – and many of them have later upgraded to a premium subscription, thanks to the added features, lack of advertisements, sizeable catalogue and of course the low cost.
Each of the aforementioned services offers an ‘offline listening’ feature whereby the user can essentially download a given song or album onto their device, be it their computer or their mobile device, and retain it for offline listening when a connection to the streaming service is unavailable. When the user re-connects, their listener stats are reported back to the streaming service, and thence the artist can receive compensation for offline listening.
And, what’s more, these files are downloaded in a DRM-protected digital audio format. In the case of Apple Music, it’s the .M4P protected audio format – and despite the files being stored in an obvious location (the user’s iTunes media folder), such files are not susceptible to unauthorised use or distribution. Or are they…
A quick search of the internet will reveal a plethora of software tools for every computing platform you could name, designed to allow you to crack the DRM protection of an audio file (or a given set of audio files). Use of these tools allows you, often in less than the time required to rip a CD, to take those offline files downloaded from a service such as Apple Music, and convert them to a DRM-Free digital audio format of your choice. Of course, the quality is limited to that of the original file (256KBPS AAC in the case of Apple Music) – but somehow if your goal is simply to share the tracks, I don’t think you care. And 256KBPS AAC files really don’t sound bad, even through a higher-end system.
You may be thinking at this point that a legislation permitting the copying of physical media is the least of the industries worries – and, dear reader, I’d have to agree with you. In fact, thanks to the modern digital age, it’s now easier than ever to obtain music for a very low cost, and distribute it for your own personal gain.
Think about it. An apple music subscription costs a Meer £9.99 a month, and gives you access to most, if not all tracks in the iTunes store. Add a conversion application, a 1-time costing between £30 and £60, and you suddenly have all the tools you need to obtain free music. And, if you are so inclined, sharing the music you have obtained couldn’t be easier. Not to mention that with such system in place, you’ll have access to the latest releases as soon as they become available. Share those with your friends, and you’ll soon find you’ve become the most popular kid on the block.
And what does that earn the music industry? Absolutely nothing. Artists, and thence their labels / management etc are paid per stream. And that amount is not fixed – it’s simply an average, but that’s a topic for another day.
The fact is that your payment of an initial subscription cost earns them nothing. And once you’ve downloaded their tracks from your streaming service of choice, and converted them using your selected conversion software, any subsequent plays of those tracks by yourself or others will earn them – you’ve guessed it – nothing.
Let’s contrast that to purchasing a CD. The average cost of an album on release is around the £10 mark. Sure, there are some fluctuations – and older albums sell new for as low as £5. Remove the retail markup, and you’re still left with a significant amount of money going directly in the pocket of the artists and the industry representatives. It’s a hell of a lot more than they’d earn from more than a hundred streams of the same album
So at this point, you may be asking yourself exactly what the solution is. We’ve already established that the solution is not to go after those of us who wish to rip our own CD collections. No, the solution is in fact much simpler than that.
Do any of you music fans remember older versions of Microsoft’s popular application ‘Windows Media Player’? DO any of you remember the screen it would present when one initially attempted to rip a CD? For those of you that don’t, Windows Media Player (WMP hereafter) offered a feature whereby the user could add copy protection to their music. This was an optional feature, which when selected would require a digital license to be downloaded to play each individual track ripped to the user’s library. This was designed to prevent the sharing of Windows Media Protected audio files – and it has to be said it worked rather well.
Would it not be simpler to impose a rule whereby all digital media management applications, such as iTunes and WMP, were required to offer this feature – and were required, in the UK at least, to disallow users from turning it off? This would allow users to rip their own CD collection, and to user the files on authorised devices – but would prevent them sharing the files with their family, friends, or the internet.
The same could be done for digital downloads from the internet. Much like Amazon’s DRM-protected .AA format for its digital audio books, iTunes files could simply require that the device in question be signed into the user’s iTunes account in order to play the desired content. And digital download services, as opposed to offering the files for download, could simply offer an access code whereby users could purchase the material from iTunes, Amazon or another online store.
Then all that needs to be done is to go after companies producing DRM-cracking software. Or, dare i suggest it, simply leave them alone. You may think i’ve gone mad – but the fact is that you’ll never combat piracy, no matter how hard you try. Think about it. In the 70s and 80s, the ‘golden era’ as some like to refer to it, did you not make mix tapes? Did you not share them with your friends? Did you sit in front of the radio during the Sunday chart show, finger hovering above the record button waiting to record your favourite songs? Is that not piracy?
Further to that thought (which, dear reader, is my last – I promise), did anybody else laugh when they saw the news? Surely you’d expect one such as myself, with a collection totalling several thousands CDs, to feel an overwhelming sense of despair. But no – instead, I became lost int eh irony of it all. Because I’d be willing to bet that very few members of the BASCA, UK music, or the musician’s union could state, truthfully and honestly, that they have never ripped a CD. And with that thought, I shall leave you. Until next time…