Microsoft Volunteers to Be the Poster Child for DMCA Reform

One of the big challenges of writing about tech policy is the difficulty of explaining the subjects I write about for a general audience. This was a particular challenge a couple of years ago when I wrote a Cato Policy Analysis about the anti-circumvention provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act—just typing that out is a chore. I wish I could have pointed to this story as an example, because it brilliantly illustrates my argument.

A few years back, Microsoft developed a copy-protection scheme called PlaysForSure (it will become clear shortly how ironic that name was) that was supposed to prevent music customers from engaging in Internet piracy with music they bought from online music stores. Microsoft licensed the format to a variety of different companies and aggressively promoted it as an alternative to Apple’s iTunes-iPod ecosystem. Unfortunately, Microsoft failed to close the gap with Apple, so in 2006 Microsoft unveiled a new product line called Zune, effectively discontinuing development of PlaysForSure. Zunes are incompatible with PlaysForSure music. If you built up a music library in the PlaysForSure format, it would, um, not play for sure (or at all) on a Zune music player.

Up to this point this is just an ordinary business story, and nothing for libertarians to be concerned about. Companies drop old product lines all the time, and sometimes that means customers are stuck with compatibility headaches. But there’s just one problem: not only will Microsoft not help you play your PlaysForSure music on a Zune, but it’s illegal under the DMCA for anyone else to develop software to convert PlaysForSure music to a format that could play on Zunes, iPods, or any other format. Such software would be considered a “circumvention device”—ostensibly a piracy tool—and could bring civil and criminal penalties. If you were stupid enough to buy music in PlaysForSure format, you’re stuck with the dwindling number of PlaysForSure-compatible music programs still left on the market. You can burn your music to CDs, and then re-rip them to an open format, but this is a time-consuming process if you have a large music library, and it will lead to some degradation in the quality of the music.

As if all that weren’t enough, Microsoft yesterday announced the next step in its campaign to make the DMCA look ridiculous: this fall, it will be switching off the license servers that allow customers to “authorize” new computers and operating systems to play music from customers that bought music from its now-defunct MSN Music store. This means that if you have a library of music from the MSN Music store, and you buy a new computer or upgrade your operating system, there will be no legal way to take your music library with you.

If Congress hadn’t enacted the DMCA, this wouldn’t be a big deal. Third parties could develop software utilities that would automatically convert peoples’ PlaysForSure-formatted music collections into an open format like MP3, which would allow it be played on almost any computer or music player. Customers wouldn’t have to worry about whether their computer had been “authorized,” or whether the company they’d purchased the music from was running the necessary “license server.”

The most frustrating thing about this is that forcing consumers to jump through these hoops hasn’t made a dent in illicit file sharing. To this day, the music industry sells most of its music in the copy-protection-free CD format. Anyone can buy a CD, rip it to MP3 format, and upload it to the Internet. And music downloaded from peer-to-peer networks comes free of copy protection. Which means that the hassles imposed on consumers by the DMCA and copy protection formats like PlaysForSure haven’t slowed down piracy at all. All they’ve done is created unnecessary headaches for customers who were foolish enough to obey the law and pay for the music they downloaded.