The Scientific Indian

Let’s talk music and software for a moment. Shall we? This post is about the software I use at home to organize the audible bits I have accumulated and keep accumulating everyday. You must remember that I am not an expert on any of the software applications discussed below. If you have technical questions, try the forums of the software you are curious about.

For the past one month I have begun to regularly use three OSes at home (Mac OSX, Ubuntu Dapper, Windows XP). Ubuntu and Windows are new to my home. Like all new arrivals, they’ve given me both joy and pain. Ubuntu’s Disk Manager can be a big pain. Windows registry is a nauseating garbage bin. While at it, let me just say OS X Finder is plain stupid. But, we shall restrain ourselves. This post is about sharing and playing music on computers that have different operating systems – all within a simple home network.

With the arrival of Ubuntu and Windows, my tiny little apple cart was upset irrecoverably. All my audible bits – music, audiobooks – are in iTunes Library on my Mac with iTunes as the high priest. This is always a dangerous situation because you have pawned your freedom for convenience and you must be very cautious. The iTunes Library of mine has bits purchased from iTunes Store, from CDs and some music given by friends. An important aspect of high-priestiness is exclusivity. Only the choosen can access the treasures. iTunes Library is accessible only by iTunes and iTunes does not run on Linux. To play the music on Linux I have to move the music files to a more ‘open’ library. The best ‘open’ library is, IMHO, a folder with ‘open’ format song files in them, like ogg files in a simple folder structure. Music players can monitor the folder and use the song file’s metadata to expose the song info. Anything complicated than this is a waste of my time and energy because it will require maintenance on my part and unnecessary conformation to arbitrary conventions. I get rashes when I need to maintain things I don’t have to.

My most basic and important requirement is to be able to play the music collection irrespective of which OS I am running at any moment. I want to listen to music at times and not be encumbered by silly things like OS and DRM and Pope Steve. Not being able to play it when I am sitting right beside the Digital Library is like sitting in front of a closed door when you can hear laughter and smell good food on the other side. The situation demands rectification. There’s just one problem. iTunes.

iTunes is a good program. Good programs are very rare and I am reluctant to let iTunes go. But, iTunes asks for a high price. It asks for my freedom in exchange for keeping the audible bits. While this may be a price many would be willing to pay, freedom with my bits is a non-negotiable issue for me.

iTunes uses a locking technology called FairPlay to lock the songs you buy in iTunes Store. FairPlay is a cunning name. It neatly hides the face of those it is fair to. FairPlay is how Digital Rights Management (DRM) is implemented for music. While Apple’s DRM is slightly better than other DRMs, it still restricts the legitimate freedom of a consumer like me. The bottomline, DRM sucks. Due to the locking strategy of iTunes even if I find a program like RhythmBox for linux which somewhat satiates my craving for iTunes, I would still not be able to play the music purchased at iTunes store. I cannot take the music files in iTunes Library and play them in RhythmBox. iTunes DRM would not allow it. But, we are talking about technology here and technology is all about innovation and change. Locking someone into sticking to a single source is the antithesis of technological progress. Time to remind ourselves of a fundamental technological truth.

All technologies can be circumvented as long as humans remain analog. However locked ‘digital’ music is, it must in the end, flow into our analog ears. That means at some point there is a hole from which rightful content can be extracted into whatever container we choose. So, while DRM and other locking technologies are a problem, it is not a problem that is insurmountable. And, surmount we do. QTFairUse6 cures DRM infections. When I write this, iTunes may have been updated to break QTFairUse. My guess would be that QTFairUse would break iTunes quick enough. Making a paying, rights-respecting person like me jump so many hoops is highly counterproductive. My last purchase at iTunes Music Store in the past and will remain so.

I mentioned RhythmBox. RhythmBox is a music player for Linux that is inspired by iTunes. I tried it and decided it’ll do. I cured the audible bits in the iTunes Library and moved them to RhythmBox in Ubuntu. I am still looking for a player that is truly cross platform and is as good as or better than iTunes.

After getting the audible bits sorted out, the next step is to make them available anywhere. I could setup a Digital Library that Ubuntu, Windows and Mac machines can share. It would potentially be my first cross-platform Digital Library. The digital bits can follow me whereever I go. I can walk like I mean it. Well, I do walk like I mean it now. We’ll talk about how I setup the Digital Library in another post.

Update: Yesterday was the Day Against DRM. DefectiveByDesign website is a good resource on what’s wrong with DRM and a place to start and share your own campaign against DRM.

Comments

  1. #1 Polonius
    October 4, 2006

    With respect, I disagree.

    Intellectual property is essential to many of us: scientists, software engineers, writers, musicians, actors, etc. Copyright laws exist to protect us (yes, and the nasty, evil, scheming employers and distributors who benefit from our work).

    When tape recorders first appeared, musicians protested that people would copy records. That did happen, but there was some loss of quality, so record sales stayed high. In the digital age, there is no loss of quality, so the threat is much greater.

    The creators and distributors of intellectual property are entitled to be paid for their work. If unscrupulous people want to copy (and sometimes profit from) that work, the creators and distributors are entitled to protection. If that protection increases the number of legitimate sales, the distributors can (and in a free market will be forced to) reduce prices charged to their honest customers.

    There is nothing immoral in the producer of an artistic work, or a piece of software for that matter, distributing it under a licence that limits its use. Movie-makers already distribute DVDs for rental, for home viewing and for public viewing under very different licences and at very different prices.

    If a music distributor wants to sell you a recording on condition that you only play it on one computer, they are legally (in many jurisdictions) and morally (in my opinion) entitled to do just that. If you want to be entitled to generate several copies and distribute them among your friends, or even just your immediate family, you should expect to pay more.

    Music distributors do sell recordings under restrictive licences. Unscrupulous people abuse those licences, so the copyright holders see a need to use technology to enforce their rights. It also catches people who just want to make a few copies for their own use. That’s a breach of copyright too, though a relatively minor one.

    Now, if you think DRM as currently implemented is broken, fair enough, but the problem is in the implementation, not in the concept.

    If you think the licences are too restrictive, then that’s a different issue again; try taking your custom elsewhere. If enough people did that, the terms would change or the prices come down.

    If you think that’s not possible because the distributors are operating a giant cartel and fixing prices, then there are laws against that in many jurisdictions.

    If you think the distributors are taking advantage of the writers/performers etc., then that’s for the writers/performers etc. to take up. Again, unless the distributors are price-fixing, it’s hard to see what’s stopping the creators taking their talent elsewhere in a competitive market.

    It’s not clear what your gripe is, but I think DRM is part of the solution, not part of the problem.

  2. #2 Dinesh
    October 4, 2006

    DRM though it restricts, is a necessary evil. But Fairplay gives a good level of freedom and it has been reliable, unlike the not so sure ‘Playsforsure’. In any case, since Apple iTunes store sells music at 128Kbps AAC, I have only bought a few tracks (you can count it with just the fingers). I am still the traditional CD buyer ripping my music at AAC 320Kbps and feeling good to listen to the music that way. I hope Apple could go lossless soon, at which time I can buy from their store.

  3. #3 Edward the Bonobo
    October 4, 2006

    Of course, Polonius is right.

    However…if like me you are lacking in scruples, there are all sorts of Linux workarounds for you. (I’m an Ubuntu Dapper user myself).

    If you look at the forums (www.ubuntuforums.org) or the community help pages (https://help.ubuntu.com/community/), I’m fairly sure I’ve seen bits and pieces about removing iTunes DRM. Maybe Banshee plays protected files?

    I’m not yet convinced of the practical advantages of .ogg … not if you’re illegally downloading files which are almost invariably in .mp3. Open formats are a good idea ‘on paper’ – but less good on my iPod. I know that .mp3 decoding isn’t available in the official Ubuntu repositories…but you’ll have read the RestrictedFormats page.

    I don’t keep a library on my Linux machine – it’s an elderly FrankenPC with laughably small storage. My music’s on my iPod, backed up on CDs. For managing the iPod I use gtkpod. It’s rather flakey, but I’ve got used to its idiosyncracies. It’s lacking some of the features that Rythmbox and Banshee have (eg automatic importation of album art from Amazon), but seems to have some advantages for my non-HD kind of use. There’s another new iPod/library manager around…Floola. It’s still in alpha testing, and I refuse to try it until it’s properly documented.

  4. #4 Selva
    October 4, 2006

    Responding to Polonius.
    Too many ifs to answer. Broadly stated, the problem is not in the implementations. It is DRM that is problematic as explained in my post. I purchased the music. As long as I use it for legitimate purposes, I must be able to play it in any device I like.

    DRM does not stop pirates. That argument is aimed at those who are clueless. DRM stops folks like you and me and treats paying customers like criminals. Music pirates have always known how to break any encryption. DRM, which is part of DMCA, is to restrict choice and make cashcows out of us. If you are unaware of DMCA, you must educate yourself. It is the single most sinister act in the IP area. See http://www.spectrum.ieee.org/jun06/3673

    There are enough pointers in the post where one can find more about the issue. A good starting point: http://www.eff.org/IP/DRM/

  5. #5 rehana
    October 4, 2006

    It sounds like your problem is with the iTunes store, not the iTunes software. The software will happily play all the music I have (though I don’t have any AAC files, DRMed or otherwise).

    I’m also not clear on why you want a cross-platform player, rather than a player for each platform.

  6. #6 selva
    October 4, 2006

    Edward, I am the ‘clean’ kind. Perhaps, that’s one reason why I feel strongly about restrictions of choice. Thanks for the pointers.

    rehana, it’s DRM that I have troubles with. Whichever store/application/device that uses DRM would bother me and I wouldn’t touch it with a pole anymore. I have my own strange but real reasons for needing a cross-platform player.

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