Portable music player technology isn’t as simple as it once was. With digital music files have come new restrictions from the music labels on how music is played and transferred, as well as discussion of various specifications for connecting devices to computers. In a June 16 story on Platform-Agnostic Drag-and-Drop Music Listening, I suggested lovers of independent music might be better off foregoing both Digital Rights Management (DRM) and Microsoft’s preferred connection mechanism, the Media Transfer Protocol (MTP).

There has been a lot of criticism of DRM, but in the process, a lot of people have missed the details on Microsoft’s MTP. I advocated using the older USB Media Storage Class (MSC) connection method because it’s compatible out-of-the-box with Mac and Linux as well as Windows. But I did note that MTP isn’t itself “DRM,” since many of its features are unrelated to music, let alone music DRM. That launched a semi-interesting debate with Boing Boing’s Cory Doctorow, and in the process we learned many of you really can’t stand Boing Boing’s Cory Doctorow.

The best way to learn something about a technology, though, is to talk to someone who actually develops it. Dave McLauchlan from the Windows Media Devices Group at Microsoft wrote me privately to rebut some of what I said, make some corrections, and set the record straight on the Windows Media devices and specifically MTP. Dave is himself a musician — see his music site, and note that even though he works for Microsoft, his music is available on iTunes via CDBaby and in non-DRMed MP3 downloads. His response isn’t the one-sided DRM advocacy you might expect, though he has some pragmatic points to make about DRM, as well. Most interesting to me is some of the insight he provides on how these technologies are evolving for music use. I stand by my claim that musicians should consider sidestepping labels and selling non-DRMed music direct to their listeners. But there’s plenty to be learned here.

Dave writes:

Microsoft’s MTP vs. USB Mass Storage Class

I’m not sure where “UMS” as an acronym came from – certainly not from any of the official sources, and definitely not from the USB-IF Device Working Group where it was conceived (and is still recognized as) MSC – or Mass Storage Class.

Ed: Note that the original article was referring to iRiver, who in fact refer to this in their support documentation as “UMS”. I picked it up from them. But if anyone knows what it’s properly called, Dave would, and in fact the USB-IF Device Working Group also calls it MSC, not UMS. Correct your acronym use accordingly. -PK

Anyhow, DRM can be implemented on MSC devices. In 1999 Microsoft developed “Portable Devices DRM” or PD-DRM as part of our Windows Media DRM 1 package. PD-DRM worked on MSC devices, and was specifically for the scenario of downloading music. The problem with PD-DRM was that it didn’t allow for a bunch of scenarios that content owners and download stores wanted – namely subscription support, limited number of playbacks, mobile phone support, direct and indirect license acquisition, DVD players, set-top boxes, silent licensing, pre-delivery of licenses, backup and restore of licenses, network device support, and so on. The list was extensive.

In order to implement all these new features, there needed to be a protocol that tied music objects on a storage volume with the license nodes that govern the use of that content. Actually, it is better to consider it this way – MSC presented a storage volume as just that – a disk drive. Objects on the drive were “files” and were discrete and unrelated entities. There was no mechanism to “tie” one object to another. In fact, MSC at its core is just a protocol that provides a means to read out sectors on a drive. The fact that MSC has become ubiquitous in OS’s is more related to the fact that FAT has become ubiquitously supported.

Anyhow, with no relation between files on a volume in MSC, there needed to be a protocol that supported relations between objects. PTP already existed in the camera world and so Microsoft set about developing MTP to support all media devices – not just cameras. PTP/MTP considers objects to be entities with properties and upon which operations can be performed. That allows for a WMA file to have associated DRM licenses on the volume – but which are separate objects (or files in the FAT world).

MTP as a Cross-Platform Standard

MTP is currently under submission and evolution in the USB Implementers Forum. Microsoft has committed to giving the USB-IF the MTP specification gratis and a sub-group called the MTP Working Group working under the Device Work Group is presently working that specification through to a v1.0 candidate. When that occurs, the Board of Directors of the USB-IF will vote and hopefully install our specification as USB-IF MTP v1.0. The work group that is chartered with that effort is made up of 17 companies, and is chaired by Microsoft (specifically by me).

There are currently MTP implementations on PC, Mac, Linux, PalmOS, Unix and so on. Given that the vast majority of MTP devices today are music players, it comes as no surprise that Apple has not implemented MTP on OS X. However, there is no reason they couldn’t in the future if they so desired. You might draw a conclusion that such non-PC implementations may flourish upon the publication of MTP as a USB-IF standard – there has been that speculation, I guess we’ll just have to see. But, there isn’t a reason for the scarcity of those implementations today – aside from the business justification and market demand.

Until the USB-IF ratifies the MTP v1.0 specification we’re developing in that forum, MTP can be downloaded freely from MSDN:
MTP Specification @ MSDN

Microsoft absolutely is advocating MTP as a standard. We hope it has an impact on the marketplace – and the reasons for us doing this are clear. Firstly, we never charged $$ for MTP specifications, so it wasn’t ever a money-spinner for us. Secondly, we want to do everything to encourage device vendors to adopt MTP since, for each device that supports MTP, that is one less driver we have to ship in the box. If all devices could work with the MTP class drivers that ship with Vista, then we’ll approach the panacea of broad device support with high quality inbox drivers.

Given the vast majority of what were once “blue screens” were attributable to bugs in third party drivers – reducing the customer’s dependency on these drivers is crucial to building a more stable system.

On why MTP isn’t implemented on Mac:

I see very little motivation to develop an MTP implementation on the Mac while the iPod still commands such a market presence and of course doesn’t support MTP. Now that MTP digital cameras are shipping (and MTP/IP wi-fi cameras) you may start to see a breadth of support developing.

Apple wouldn’t have to implement MTP in iPhoto to support cameras – MTP is forwards and backwards compatible with PTP – but… plugging an MTP camera into an OS that supports only PTP limits the user experience to what we have today. With MTP, we introduced significant performance enhancements for large files/large numbers of files, media extensions, etc… which applications won’t be able to take advantage of without MTP support. However, basic connectivity will still work.

Ed: I still dream of a day when device makers go after the Mac market as a way to combat iPod, for real competition in this space, but I know there are a number of reasons why this is an unrealistic expectation. Zune for Mac? Hey, it’s still possible. In the meantime, I’m happily shuttling my iRiver U10 between my two Windows PCs and two Macs. -PK

[Digital Rights Management]

Contrary to your article, Windows Media DRM has been very broadly adopted, particularly with the announcements by Motorola and Nokia that they’ll be supporting MTP and DRM in their media phones. We expect that adoption to grow rapidly.

Ed: For the record, and since I had to look it up to recall what I originally said, here’s my original statement: “very few companies want to pay a license fee for this technology because Apple’s dominance means there’s no market.” In fact, quite a few do, so technically this was unfair, though I believe I was trying to refer to the lack of Linux- and Mac-based players. But Dave has a point here, one I don’t argue with. -PK

Digital Rights Management

But, that doesn’t really address the crux of the issue, which is that:

1) DRM is a tool, most people confuse their frustration/unhappiness with protected content as being a function of the DRM when it really is a function of the business rules the content owners decide upon when they encode their content. The same Windows Media DRM was implemented by the folks behind “Weed” (www.weedshare.com) which enabled the sharing of media on Kazaa, BitTorrent, etc… The flexibility is absolutely there – provided the major record labels decide that is the way they want to go.

2) People confuse digitally downloaded content with CDs. People assume they have the same rights to use digitally downloaded content as they do CDs. In fact, in many countries it is still technically against the rules to rip CDs for playback on devices. Digital downloads come with a very different set of conditions which most people ignore when they install their player, or purchase the content. While I wish digital downloads were more flexible in usage just like the rest of us – I acknowledge the right of the content owner to dictate the usage rules.

Bottom line – and the point I’ll make in my rebuttal is simply that as musicians we probably all believe in the right of the owner of content to decide how that content should be sold. As a muso, I have some of my own content available on my website for free download – I’m cool with that. However, the owners of the mainstream music that we like to listen to have decided that they want to play by different rules. And that is fair enough – as consumers it is our responsibility to decide whether those rules are going to work for us or not. If not, go buy a CD or if so, download to your hearts content on some subscription site.

But… in neither case is it really fair to blame the DRM mechanism for simply enforcing rules laid down by another party.

Musicians, Choice, and DRM Alternatives

Ed: The above prompted me to suggest that musicians might want to consider selling directly to consumers. -PK

I completely understand your point about musicians and electing not to go the route of DRM. There really is no reason why someone couldn’t open a store selling un-DRM’d independent content. You could still sell in WMA format, but give 99% of income back to the artist and not wrap the tracks in DRM.

Or… you could wrap them in DRM, but allow infinite transfers, burns, copies, etc… with no license expiration.

So far the major online stores haven’t seen the value in this, but the opportunity still exists. I for one would be willing to try it with my music…

Ed.: The major online stores would be happy not to do this and take a sizable cut for the privelage; I think it’ll be musicians doing their own sales and pocketing the change. Dave, if you try it, I’ll put my money where my mouth is! But regardless, there’s nothing stopping you from listening to non-DRMed WMA — or OGG or MP3 — on your Windows Media-based iRiver clix. -PK

There’s plenty to debate on all sides, but it’s nice to have discussion that’s open and based on accurate information. I really appreciate the time Dave took to talk about these issues so thoughtfully and in such detail.