Percussa micro super signal processor

Cory Doctorow of Boing Boing responds here to my commentary on platform-agnostic music listening. On a basic level, I’m not saying anything different than what Cory originally did: Windows DRM is broken and frustrates customers, and the MTP connection cripples Windows Media devices by limiting interoperability. (Try plugging a recent MTP device into a Mac or Linux box and see what happens. Then try an ultra-cheap generic flash music player and marvel at the “advancement” of technology.) iRiver giving users an option to switch back to what works, UMS, is a good thing.

What this comes down to is some subtler points on which we disagree, and whether iRiver is really changing their stance. He quotes my original story, so I’ve excerpted it here so we can follow this. Philosophical debates aside, one point worth making is that there’s nothing stopping you at the present moment for using this hardware and software without the DRM features, whatever Microsoft and the manufacturers intended. Readers noted in comments on the previous story that you’re not restricted to DRMed music on iTunes, and can even get around iTunes entirely with third-party software. Just as I thought Boing Boing shouldn’t conflate DRM with the underlying pipe, readers have suggested that software that’s simply proprietary (like iTunes) shouldn’t be conflated with software designed to actively manage DRM licenses (like Apple’s FairPlay), even if the latter depends on the former.

In the future, you may not be able to ignore DRM, but now you can, and that’s important because it means consumers can still choose to avoid some of these broken technologies. I think that was part of Cory Doctorow’s original point on Boing Boing, so I may be splitting hairs, but it is important to break down these issues. Mr. Doctorow spends a lot more time thinking about these things than I do, so it’s interesting to read his arguments here.

Italicized text from the original story.

PK — MTP is proprietary to Windows: Not exactly. Microsoft did develop MTP, so it is technically a proprietary format; it’s actually extended from the protocol used to connect digital cameras. But unlike Microsoft’s DRM technology, for which Microsoft charges a license fee, MTP is freely-licensed.

CD responds: Peter, “proprietary” means that you aren’t allowed to implement this unless MSFT says you can. License fees are only one way that a program or interface can be proprietary; more important are things like “compliance and robustness,” particularly the latter, which requires that implementations be designed to resist user-modification, which effectively eliminates open source/free software implementations. Moreover, since these systems can be construed as “effective means of access control” under the DMCA, building technology that interoperates with them without taking on the license and its compliance and robustness rules is also unlawful. By adding the veneer of DRM to these technologies, vendors like Microsoft create a new kind of copyright: the right to control who may make an interoperable product.

PK: I don’t disagree with any of these arguments in a broader sense. However, whatever the situation on the hardware side (and there’s plenty in most electronics hardware that’s not open source, for better or for worse), there are already open source/free implementations of the MTP protocol. Maybe the open source implementations of MTP support on Mac and Linux violate Microsoft’s license terms, but from what I can tell from the Microsoft developer site, they don’t — at least, not under the current terms.

MTP is DRM: Totally wrong. MTP just happens to be a protocol that supports DRMed music. You can use it to transfer non-DRMed music if you really want to, and it actually does support drag-and-drop in Windows; if you drop an OGG file on an iRiver U10 or clix through Windows Explorer, that’s exactly what you’re doing. So DRM and MTP are two different things, even if they’re both part of Microsoft’s PlaysForSure specification.

CD responds: MTP is DRM in the sense that a DRM needs a “secure” channel to use for establishing a “chain of trust” between devices. MTP is designed and used as part of the DRM system that makes up PlaysForSure.

Absolutely, MTP is part of the overall DRM scheme. And no hardware vendor is likely to implement MTP for any other reason than to support Microsoft’s DRM certification process. Whatever Microsoft may say, the ability to play Windows Media files with DRM is the major incentive for adding MTP.

But I think it’s best not to conflate a delivery mechanism, which supports content with and without DRM licenses, with DRM content that can only be played on DRM-enabled devices and software. MTP is the pipe, whereas the other element — the Windows Media Rights Manager software that restricts whether or not you play content — is what I think is actually getting on people’s nerves. MTP may be a prerequisite to DRM certification for certain kinds of content (like subscriptions), but just because you have a device with MTP doesn’t mean you have to use DRM. It’s a channel; it’s the pipe between your computer and your player. You could send non-DRMed OGG files of Creative Commons-licensed music down that pipe and nothing else, using Linux and an open source player, if you really wanted to.

And while license fees per se don’t define whether something is open or proprietary, they certainly do define whether something can be broadly implemented. Implementing Windows DRM means sending money to Microsoft; implementing MTP doesn’t.

Of course, I still think as Cory does that MTP is a really bad idea, and replaces something that’s open and broadly implemented (USB Mass Storage) with something that’s currently only fully implemented out of the box on Windows XP. It also replaces the controlling body; UMS is controlled by the USB Implementers’ Forum which represents a wide body of vendors (including Microsoft), in much the same way that the MIDI Manufacturers’ Association controls the MIDI spec, whereas MTP is entirely the creation of Microsoft. Furthermore, the fact that the only real reason for reinventing the wheel in this way is to allow for more Windows DRM is equally disturbing.

But as far as Microsoft’s “chain of trust”, while MTP is part of the overall DRM scheme, you don’t have to use it that way and it is a freely-available protocol spec — at least for the moment. Breaking the Windows Media Rights Management software (or FairPlay on the Apple side) violates the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, breaks the law, and (let’s face it) is pretty difficult to do anyway. MTP, on the other hand, you can use however you see fit, if you wanted to use it.

That’s a pretty big difference. And it means people who read the Boing Boing story who own MTP devices might think they have to use Windows Media Player to transfer music, or (even worse) that they have to use DRMed music. They don’t.

PK — iRiver released a firmware update because they saw the error of their ways and want to start a revolution: No, sorry, totally wrong. This is effectively what Boing Boing claimed in their article. In Cory Doctorow’s version of events, hackers made the iRiver players work with UMS instead of MTP to get around broken DRM technology, iRiver â€Å“took the hint,â€Â? and came to our rescue by throwing away its PlaysForSure specification and releasing an update to liberate its players so they work with UMS again. An interesting story â€â€? except it’s not true. There are two versions of the firmware (UMS and MTP) so that iRiver can sell to different markets, including Asian markets where people could care less about MTP because they have no reason to use it â€â€? i.e. they don’t have a Windows Media subscription store online. Yes, iRiver did give users a choice to switch back to UMS on the U10. But Boing Boing’s timing was off: they ran their story May 26, just as iRiver was pushing its updated version of the U10, the clix, which has zero UMS support, is entirely dependent on MTP for all transfers, DRMed subscription and otherwise, and even includes Windows Media Player 11 with a special version of MTV’s Urge service. Does that sound like a company gone rogue, sticking it to the Man by rejecting Microsoft’s DRM? Uh, no.

CD: The users were already hacking their players to support UMS when iRiver released its UMS switcher; they changed their position from “Switching to UMS voids your warranty” to “UMS is an officially sanctioned and supported activity.”

Yes, and that’s great. But I guess I’m just not as optimistic on this particular case study. I’d like to believe that DRM is failing in the marketplace, and that companies are backpedaling as a result. But here’s the other evidence in the iRiver case:

  1. The update doesn’t support all players and all sizes; on the contrary, it supports only a small subset. Most notably, the clix which is now iRiver’s most-hyped device can’t be switched to UMS mode. Given that the clix appears to be exactly the same hardware as the U10 it replaces (different storage size, but same internal chips), and the U10 supports this firmware switch while the clix does not, I’d say iRiver is going Microsoft’s way, not the user’s.

  2. The update is available only on iRiver’s global site. The first thing you see when you go to iriver.com is a page asking for your country. If you choose North America or Europe, you won’t even be able to download the firmware update that lets you switch between MTP and UMS. Only via the global support site can you even read up on the difference between UMS and MTP or get access to the UMS firmware. There’s no “beware of the leopard” sign; maybe we’ll leave that to Apple. (Sorry, Douglas Adams joke.)

  3. iRiver continues to advocate PlaysForSure. Whereas previous devices were loaded up with non-DRMed eMusic MP3 files, the clix now ships with a CD containing Windows Media Player 11 and pushing the DRM subscription-based Urge (MTV) music service.

The only thing likely to keep UMS alive on iRiver devices is that iRiver’s own jukebox software requires it. (So much for MTP implementations, I know.) But what seems to be happening is that iRiver is shipping UMS and their (admittedly horrendous) proprietary jukebox software for Asia, while limiting the US market increasingly to MTP and Windows Media Player. And it sounds like the newer the iRiver device, the more likely it is to be dependent on Windows Media Player. So you have to compare a single software update on their global support site to their entire hardware channel push in North America. Which do you think is more important?

Microsoft is, of course, rumored to be coming up with their own music player hardware, which could change the whole ballgame. This would provide further evidence that MS and Apple want total control over how we listen to music, and it would not only anger customers, but Microsoft’s vendors, as well. That is, if this happens at all.

This is a lot further into this than I originally intended to go, but Cory’s thoughts were provocative enough that I think they merited investigation. I don’t want to pretend to be an expert on these issues; I’m not. But I certainly am happy to get the opportunity to discuss them, so keep the comments coming.

I’ll close with this comment from reader Mies van der Robot on my last story, which I think really makes clear the difference between the loading mechanism and pipe (which in Microsoft’s case would be Windows Media Player and MTP) and the DRM software:

Your first paragraph is conflating two separate issues: the issue of proprietary loading mechanisms (e.g. iTunes the player, not to be confused with iTunes the store) with the more odious issue of players that lock out non-DRM music completely. The iPod/iTunes combination still works just fine with independently distributed music (in MP3, AAC, ALE, AIFF, or WAV format).

My iPod is filled with tunes purchased from Bleep.com, Kompakt.de, emusic.com, and other independent sites distributing DRM-free MP3s. Those tracks number in the hundreds. Number of iTunes Store tracks: 5.

Apple may not be actively promoting independent distribution, but they’re also not locking it out of the hardware. Yes, you’re dependent on iTunes as the â€Å“driverâ€Â? software, but lots of hardware uses proprietary single-vendor drivers. As long as the hardware’s driver permits you to load and listen to non-DRM music, I consider that to be open to independent distribution.

As several noted, Apple is actually slightly worse than Microsoft; MTP connection or no, in Windows at least you can still use the file system to add music to a player, and Microsoft is at least allowing greater vendor diversity on both the DRM and the connection. But the important point is that, until players start locking out non-DRM’ed music (at which point we will be in the streets, of course), you have a whole lot of options for how to get music onto your iPod or Windows Media player. And I think that’s a positive solution you can use for your own music and advocate to friends.