Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Why won't you take my money?

(I've only just realised that this has been sitting on my account as a draft entry for a long time, so I'm publishing it despite some details perhaps being slightly out of date)

Why do companies make it so hard to hand my money over to them? It's like they're running away from me and throwing obstacles in my way to stop me reaching them.

Perhaps I should elucidate a little. What I'm talking about is buying music and films. Ideally I would see something I like, and buy it. However, whilst I can technically do this, it's not practical in most cases. Here's an example:

LoveFilm like to make a big deal out of being able to stream films to your PC. "Great", I thought, "I have a PC, and I want to watch films, so I'll just plug it into my TV and give it a go." Just one problem; even though it says you can watch it on your PC, it took a bit more research to discover that what they actually meant was "A PC that can install and use Microsoft Silverlight." Now that's not what they say on their streaming page. They seem to omit that key detail. You have to dig around in the help section for the real requirements. Now I don't have Windows on any of my PCs. I either have Debian or Ubuntu, and Silverlight is not available on these platforms. You may be thinking "Ah, but Linux has the Moonlight project which is the Linux equivalent of Silverlight." That it is, but completely unusable in this case because Microsoft won't license their PlayReady DRM system to the Moonlight project, so that option's dead. Also my work laptop is a Macbook Pro, but this is for work, not for installing entertainment software on, so that's not an option. Basically DRM is the real reason I can't watch it. Because they don't want me to copy the film that I paid to watch, they insist I must have software installed that prevents me from doing so. "It's a shame Netflix isn't available in the UK then." Well no, not really. They have exactly the same barriers... Silverlight + DRM.

Okay, so let's just buy the film outright rather than streaming it using a rental service. Where can I do that? Well there don't seem to be many places that let you do that in the UK. I found something called BlinkBox, but apparently they use Windows Media DRM to "protect" the films, which again, can't be played on Linux. There is apparently a limited set of films which can be "streamed" to Linux through Adobe Flash, but that's about it.

So if you don't have Windows or OSX, and don't have Silverlight in most cases, you're stuck. And even if you do meet those requirements, you're not free to transfer them to other devices. Essentially, they won't take your money.
Now when it comes to music, things are a bit brighter. One of the biggest online shops, Amazon, allows you to buy single tracks or entire albums in MP3 format. Nearly every variation of computer and multimedia device can play MP3s. However, apparently Amazon now "watermark" many tracks with identifying information, so if they are copied by various other people, you can be identified as the origin of the copy. If you happen to have a large-capacity music device that gets lost or stolen, you'd better hope that those who end up with your device don't decide to upload all your tracks. You'd be liable and accused of enabling piracy. In any case, why would someone choose MP3 over buying the CD? The CD is higher quality, can be ripped without any watermarking, and encoded into any format you wish, including convenient lossless ones such as FLAC. Well surely they're more expensive to buy? Let's compare buying Avenged Sevenfold's self-titled album in MP3 format and CD format. On Amazon.co.uk, at the time of writing this, the MP3 album is £4.99. Bargain! Not bad at all. So surely the CD will be more expensive? Well no, it's not. In fact it's £4.49. What's the incentive to buy the lower-quality MP3 version with possible watermarking, over the cheaper and higher-quality CD version, with free delivery, cover art, rippable into any format you wish without loss in quality, and you still have the CD as backup if you lose it? I guess the only advantage is convenience, if you can't wait 24 hours for it to arrive.

I like my audio to be in FLAC format. It doesn't take up huge amounts of space, the sound is identical to the original, and plays on my media box, my music player (iAudio 7), and my laptop. Unfortunately attempting to find a place that provides a large library of music in this format has been a fruitless endeavour. There was one place that met this demand. In fact not only could you choose FLAC format, but many other formats too, such as MP3, OGG, AAC, WAV, WMA, Musepack, Monkey's Audio and OptimFROG. You could even choose the bitrate! Isn't that great?! You get your music in the format of your choosing rather than just the one format, and you didn't need any special software to download the tracks either, unlike Amazon's. So why am I referring to this place in the past-tense? It's because they were sued by the RIAA on behalf of EMI, Sony BMG, Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group and as a result had pressure from the Russian government. They were claiming $1.65 trillion in damages from 11 million songs. That's $150,000 per track. Let's leave the absolute insanity of the claimed damages because it just goes without saying. AllofMP3 eventually closed, even though there never did appear to be any real case against them. Russian law allowed them to license the music in the way they did, apparently. But even if they were completely illegal, what they did was give customers what they wanted. They made a healthy profit, and were very popular. So surely other companies would want to do likewise? No. It appears not. Rather than have you conveniently buy a track without watermarking or DRM in a format of your choice and with almost no overhead cost for them, they'd rather have you buy the physical product which needed to be manufactured individually, have printed artwork, put into a protective case, shipped to a distributor, kept in stock in a warehouse, eventually shipped to a seller, kept in their warehouse, then have staff paid to package it up and pay a delivery company to deliver it to you in person... for less.

In fact this is worse when it comes to buying eBooks on Amazon's site. Not only are they DRM-protected, but they tend to cost more than the physical printed book. The convenience they provide is that clicking on the Buy It Now button on the book's page will allow it to almost instantly appear on your device. But note how you have to get the book from Amazon, and no-one else. You can't go to another eBook shop and buy a book in an alternative format, such as the highly-popular ePub format. And the books we do buy from Amazon can never be put on a non-Amazon device. So again, why would we pay extra for the additional limitations? It's this kind of total control that makes Apple's "ecosystem" so awful and exploitative.

Now there is an alternative... you can get the film, book, music track you want, and have it almost instantly. You can play it or read it on any device you like, and there's no DRM or secret identifying information in the files. The DVD or Bluray discs won't have endless unskippable warnings about how you shouldn't copy films, or loads of trailers for films you don't ever want to see. What is this wonderful source that gives people exactly what they're so willing to pay for? Well you've probably guessed it... piracy. Yes, you don't even have to pay for it. These companies see piracy as a terrible plague that's destroying their world, yet for some reason they refuse to compete with it. I've got money to give them, but instead they say I'm not allowed to watch their films because I don't have the necessary handcuffs.

I previously bought the complete Sherlock Holmes DVD box set, and at the beginning of *each disc* was an unskippable anti-piracy video with Matrix-style music, giving warnings about how downloading films illegally is extremely bad and makes you a criminal. Not exactly setting me up to be immersed in 19th century London. Ironically, the only people who are punished by seeing these warnings are those who obtained the episodes by legal means, since those who ripped them and made them available for download remove the intrustive and annoying 30 second atmosphere-destroying clip. I had paid for these legitimately, but because of that, I'm being warned that I mustn't download illegal copies.

I'll end on an experience I had with a computer game, which I have posted elsewhere before:

Years ago I bought Sid Meier's Pirates! for Windows (back when I was using Windows). I was really looking forward to it because I had previously played Pirates Gold! on the Amiga CD32 and loved it. I wanted this game so much that I had pre-ordered it a couple months in advance for the more expensive special edition (the same game but with various extra things like a map poster, extra media etc.). When it finally arrived, I put the disc in the drive and then proceeded to run the installer. Then some kind of pre-installation checker was running (something like SecuROM... it could have even actually been SecuROM). It failed the check. I was certain I didn't have a dodgy copy as it was bought from a reputable source referenced by the company that made the game and had all the official packaging and goodies. So I tried it again... failed. I rebooted... failed. I checked that I met their system requirement. I easily exceeded every requirement. Because it was so new, searches for this problem yielded no results. It wasn't until a week later (without being able to install it) that others were reporting the same problem. Many people couldn't install the game they had bought through legitimate means for their legitimate copy. Eventually it was revealed that many drives couldn't read the disks, and these were a wide range of drive models. Atari mentioned that it was related to the speed at which the drive spun the disc, so there was a tool suggested that would artificially slow down the drive. This still didn't work for me. It turns out that the copy-protection system they used had intentional errors on the disc that the software was checking for. Theoretically, copying the disc would either automatically correct the errors, or the copy would fail to complete. Many drives clearly weren't compatible with this error-checking process.

... I eventually downloaded a pirated copy (yes, a pirated copy of Pirates!) and it installed no problem. No DRM, no checks, no installation issues. In fact it was better than the version of the game I got even after installation as it no longer needed the disc in the drive. Plus I could keep the pirated installer backed up... but not my legitimate copy.

The lesson: DRM, anti-piracy systems and intrusive unskippable warnings don't affect pirates, only paying customers. These industries wage a constant war on piracy, but they're the ones who encourage it by punishing those who don't pirate.

1 comment:

cambob said...

Spot on. And this whole DRM ebooks stuff is driving me nuts, not least since the supplied readers are nowhere near as good as others.