Peer-to-Peer Review: The DRM Can’t Be Beat

A number of companies are attempting to monetise the massive quantity of music that is downloaded via peer-to-peer networks every day. SpiralFrog, Ruckus and Qtrax are three such companies, in varying stages of development. The common premise is to provide free music for download, and have the costs covered by advertising.

Qtrax aims to open for business in September, and has already secured licenses from EMI and Warner. They are continuing to broker deals with other labels, including Sony BMG and a number of independents. Given that CD sales are in decline, and standard mp3 sales from stores such as iTunes have not risen sufficiently to offset that loss, record labels are anxious to develop other monetisation models which take advantage of the new consumption profiles engendered by the Internet.

So is the ad-supported download going to succeed? According to Terry McBride of the Nettwerk Music Group, a legitimate peer-to-peer network could appeal to illegal downloaders because it works the same way as the software they currently use. While this does sound like wishful thinking, a lot will depend on the details of the implementation. Ad-supported downloads might work – for example, if you find an album you like, start downloading it and are then presented with some ads to look at while you wait for the download to complete. However, the issue of DRM has yet to be raised. Qtrax do not specify details on this, but they suggest that their ‘major label’ downloads may only be listenable five times. This means they are not actually providing ad-supported downloads, but ad-supported music rental. When you have listened to your songs five times, they become unusable. If you like the album, you can then go and buy it (perhaps at iTunes) where your legally bought mp3s will undoubtedly feature some other DRM which limits what you can do with your music. Furthermore, downloads will not be in mp3 format at all, but in a proprietary ‘mpq’ format.

Ruckus is targeting the college market, where illegal music downloading is understandably rampant (after all, what student has twenty quid to spend on an album?), and also incorporates DRM limitations. Ruckus mp3s can only be listened to on a PC (no portable devices, unless you get the premium service) and once the students graduate they lose all their music unless they get a subscription. Although free music at college is a no-brainer, I wonder what the uptake will be with graduates – that’s the real acid test here. As the service only came online at the start of this year, the results are not yet in.

Ease-of-access is one reason for the appeal of p2p music downloads. DRM-free (and just plain free) music is another. I imagine that most people would rather not clog up their computers with hundreds of mp3 files that will have to be deleted after five listens. Personally, I wouldn’t touch an mp3 download with a bargepole – if I want an album, I buy the CD. If a legitimate p2p service appeared which offered DRM-free downloads, I would be the first to check it out, but until all that small print disappears, I think I’ll give it a miss.


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