Defunct MSN Music has a DRM controversy on its hands

One-time customers will be prevented from moving their songs to additional computers after August 31.

Editors Note: An interview with Microsoft executive Rob Bennett, who defended the company's decision to shut down DRM-licensing servers for MSN Music, can be found here .

Microsoft handed plenty of ammunition to the anti-DRM crowd on Tuesday by announcing it will no longer furnish authorization keys for songs purchased from the defunct MSN Music service.

For former customers of MSN Music--the service Microsoft operated before closing it in late 2006 and opening Zune Marketplace--August 31 will be the last day that they can move music to different computers. After that, Microsoft will no longer "support the retrieval of license keys for the songs you purchased on MSN Music or the authorization of additional computers," the company said in an e-mail to former MSN Music customers.

It's important to note that the music won't disappear after the deadline. Songs will continue to play on authorized computers. What the announcement means is that former MSN Music customers will risk losing their music libraries if they try to transfer songs to unauthorized computers or swap operating systems after Aug. 31.

There are a couple of ways to safeguard the music but they aren't pretty. Before the deadline, those affected can move songs to computers they plan to own for a while (the songs can be authorized to play on five different PCs). Another alternative is to burn songs to CDs and rerip. This means the loss of sound quality but offers more peace of mind.

Bloggers pounced on the news, writing that the situation illustrated just how anti-consumer that digital rights management is. The point most of them made: whatever hardware the songs are stored on will malfunction eventually, and the owner's music (in a high quality form at least) will be gone forever.

"Ultimately, this serves as a reminder of what DRM really is," wrote Justin Mann at TechSpot.com. It's a "way for companies to control your use of their content. Rather than purchasing, you are renting."

Microsoft said in the e-mail that it is shutting down the servers that operated the music's DRM but didn't specify why. A call to a Microsoft representative was not returned Tuesday night.

This is only the latest sign that DRM is apparently on its way out. The music industry appears to be drifting away from copy-protection schemes and has enabled several retailers, including Amazon.com, to sell DRM-free music files.

MSN Music was a failed effort by Microsoft to compete against Apple's iTunes. In November 2006, two years after opening it's doors, the service stopped selling downloads. Microsoft began redirecting customers to Zune's Marketplace music store or RealNetworks' Rhapsody subscription service.

 

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