In 2009, Apple announced that all of its music would be Digital Rights Management (DRM)-free. At that moment, this announcement was huge. The iTunes store, the world’s largest music retail store, always had DRM, which restricts the number of devices a song can be played on and what type of device permitted to play the music. While iTunes may be “DRM-free,” DRM is still included on most digital music available on the Internet – they just call it something else.
DRM was always controversial. Some of the first DRM made available came on Digital Audio Tape (DAT) recorders. In 1992, the Audio Home Recording Act (AHRA) specified that any DAT recorder would have to contain the beginnings of DRM. This DRM would degrade copies. Previous media always degraded with each additional recording. The recording industry feared that the availability of digital copies (which do not degrade from copying) would create widespread “piracy.”
Of course, DRM works in an even more restrictive way than the degradation on DAT recorders because it is there to restrict both copying and listening. Tarleton Gillespie calls this a “trusted system,” which is a system that prohibits file uses not specified by the file’s producer. These system go beyond restricting illegal use by restricting all use to that specified by code. In effect, DRM eliminates Fair Use, one of the key provisions of US copyright law.
As I explain in iTake-Over:
In 2007, iTunes began selling DRM-free music, iTunes Plus, for an added price, but only EMI’s music was available in this format (Garrity 2007). After several years of negotiations with major record labels, in 2009, the iTunes Store began selling all music DRM-free (Lettice 2009). However, it is important to note that DRM-free music is not completely without DRM. Rather, DRM-free music no longer has the restrictions that used to be associated with iTunes, such as limitations on the number of machines that a song could be played on. DRM-free AAC files continue to contain information about the purchaser through metadata and the basic code that restricts the appliances that can play AAC files. Since the RIAA and major record labels continue to assert that file sharing is illegal, they can use metadata located on songs downloaded from P2P programs as evidence that someone has been file sharing. The Pew Internet & American Life Project suggests, “Yet, for all the major changes in the industry’s tactics, the relaxed attitude only goes so far. Through digital fingerprinting and other tracking technologies, the record labels are monitoring copyrighted content as closely as ever” (Madden 2009). By giving the iTunes Store’s consumers greater autonomy in their use of AAC files, the recording industry is using other forms of DRM to monitor the depth and breadth of file sharing.
Now metadata is being held-up as something other than DRM. In fact, nonprofits who otherwise decry the use of DRM sound awfully supportive of the use of metadata. The Future of Music Coalition (FMC) recently posted about the need for a “standardized identifier,” which can easily report the playing of a music file to performance rights organizations (PROs) and artists. Beyond claiming that this is a fairer way to compensate musicians, they also state that without these identifiers “music services will have a harder time knowing which uses are allowed and which are off-limits.” Sounds like DRM – a string of code that can restrict the use of files.
My point is that as long as music is watermarked, encoded with metadata or includes standardized identifiers on music files, these files contain DRM. In other words, DRM by any other name is still DRM. It is time to eliminate ALL DRM.
 These are data that are stored in the file at the moment of purchase and can include information such as the downloaders name and email address.