Wal-Mart reversal teaches us the masses have might

Consumers made a ruckus when MSN, Yahoo, and Walmart.com threatened to stop issuing DRM keys for their music. Each reversed itself. Take a bow.

The masses have spoken.

And Wal-Mart Stores, the nation's largest retailing chain, retreated from a misdirected and unfair policy. Last month, the company informed customers who bought its DRM-wrapped music that it would no longer issue keys to unlock songs. That meant music buyers would no longer be able to move their libraries to new computers or players. On Thursday, the company reversed that decision and said it would continue to issue keys for "the present time," according to Ravi Jariwala, a Walmart.com spokesman.

Wal-Mart supercenter

OK, let's tally these up. By my count this makes the third behemoth company this year to bend its digital rights management strategies to your will. Yes, you the Internet user, consumer, music fan.

I'm not pandering. That's what happened. The pattern was the same in each case. MSN Music was the first to announce that it planned to stop supporting DRM. Then came Yahoo Music , followed by Wal-Mart. Each announced a plan to kill support. Each was criticized. Each caved in.

Customers pointed out the obvious: There was no expiration date on the music they bought.

If nothing else, the lesson here to you--techies and digital music fans--should be that when you go to the barricades, you can make something happen. When you combine voices, the sound is loud enough to force conglomerates to bend their ears. To their credit, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Wal-Mart listened.

Of course, this isn't the end. Microsoft has committed to supporting the DRM keys for three years. What happens in 2011? And when I asked Jariwala how long does "for the present time" mean, he e-mailed this:

"(Walmart.com) will continue to evaluate options and no decisions have been made at this point. In the meantime, we'll continue to offer MP3 downloads through our online music store and will assist with DRM issues for protected Windows Media Audio (WMA) files purchased from Walmart.com."

It's generally recognized as a good thing that Walmart.com switched to MP3s. But as far as the DRM-wrapped music it once sold, the company could still pull the plug on support whenever it wishes.

And what about the services which continue to sell DRM-laden downloads, such as iTunes? Who knows what the future brings, but if Apple ever considers turning off its DRM support, it should make preparations to take care of its customers.

If not, well, then the people will clear their throats once again and make themselves heard.

 

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