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Interview: Microsoft's Rob Bennett defends DRM decision

Microsoft exec says it was impractical to continue supporting MSN Music and that the company would have offered DRM-free songs had it been allowed to.

Rob Bennett knew people were going to be angry.

Bennett is the Microsoft executive who notified former customers of the now defunct MSN Music service on Tuesday that the company would no longer issue DRM keys for their songs after August 31. This means that, while former customers can listen to their music on authorized computers for as long as the hardware lasts, they won't be able to transfer songs to a new PC after that deadline.

"Had we had the ability to deliver DRM-free tracks at the time, we absolutely would have done that. We talked to the labels at the time about that."
--Rob Bennett, Microsoft executive

In an interview with CNET, Bennett said that continuing to support the DRM keys was impractical, that the issue only affects a "small number" of people and that focusing exclusively on Zune was the best way to go. He also noted that it wasn't Microsoft's decision to wrap music into digital rights management.

The reason for shutting down the DRM-licensing servers was "every time there is an OS upgrade, the DRM equation gets complex very quickly," said Bennett, general manager of entertainment, video, and sports for MSN. "Every time, you saw support issues. People would call in because they couldn't download licenses. We had to write new code, new configurations each time...We really believe that, going forward, the best thing to do is focus exclusively on Zune."

Microsoft shut down MSN Music in November 2006, following a failed effort to turn the site into a legitimate iTunes challenger. Redmond threw its resources behind the Zune digital music player and its music store, Marketplace.

For the past 18 months, Microsoft has continued to enable former customers of MSN Music to move their song libraries to new computers. Discontinuing that service has been widely criticized. Critics have long said that DRM was a means to control legally purchased music at the expense of consumers. To them, the current situation with MSN proves it.

Bennett defended Microsoft. He said the company never wanted DRM on its songs.

"Had we had the ability to deliver DRM-free tracks at the time, we absolutely would have done that," Bennett said. "We talked to the labels at the time about that. As a company, we have continued to push for this. Zune has a subset in their catalog of DRM-free MP3s. Now, the industry is making progress. The labels are understanding the downside of DRM when its used the way they wanted to use it, they end up punishing the users who bought music legally more than those who want to circumvent the system."

Bennett added that Microsoft believes in protecting intellectual property, but the company also wants people to enjoy their media without unreasonable restrictions.

"No one ever foresaw being in this situation," Bennett said. "It's not something we like to do. We want to make it easy and as painless for our customers as possible. We really feel, in the long term, what's best for people who want to buy music from Microsoft is to move to Zune."

Bennett said that former MSN Music customers can back up their songs by burning them to CDs. But what about the loss of sound quality should they decide to rerip the music?

"We (delivered) music at 160 kbps," Bennett said. "In my personal (experience), you're not going to lose that much fidelity."