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Dr. Mac: Rants & Raves - iTunes Plus: DRM Free or Not?
Friday, June 8th, 2007 at 3:05 PM - by
Surely by now you've heard about Apple's new DRM-free iTunes offerings known as iTunes Plus. If you haven't, here's how I described it in my Houston Chronicle column earlier this week:
Announced earlier in the month and launched last week, iTunes Plus provides the option of higher-quality music encoded at twice the bit rate of previous offerings (256 kbps vs. 128 kbps AAC). And, iTunes Plus music is free of DRM (Digital Rights Management) so you can listen to it on any device you like rather than only iTunes or iPods. Furthermore, DRM-free tracks can be played on an unlimited number of computers and devices. The tracks are priced at $1.29, which is 30¢ more than the current versions, and 30¢ upgrades are available for songs you already own. At present only music from EMI, which includes singles and albums from Paul McCartney, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, Frank Sinatra, and Coldplay, is available in "Plus" form but I expect that other labels will jump on the bandwagon soon.
I've only purchased one iTunes Plus track so far and while I hear subtle differences--slightly more transparent high frequencies and smoother bass--with my best sound systems and earphones, I don't think most people using most sound systems and earphones will be able to tell the difference. That's not a knock on iTunes Plus, but rather, its a tribute to the quality of the older 128 kbps offerings, which sound incredibly good considering how much they are compressed.
Sounds like a pretty good idea, doesn't it? I thought so. But the next day I read something about iTunes Plus that I found somewhat disturbing. In an article for Associated Press, which I read in the Houston Chronicle, May Wong reported that personal data may be embedded in iTunes Plus tracks purchased at the iTunes Store. She went on to say that the Electronic Frontier Foundation believes that the embedded user information raises privacy issues.
I wasn't sure what to think so I did a little Googling™ and found sites all over the Web, including playlist, ars technica, and USA Today to name a few, abuzz with this "story." So, to check it out for myself, I dragged the iTunes Plus track I had just purchased onto the Microsoft Word icon, used Word's convenient "Recover Text from Any File" filter to open the song as text, and lo and behold, there was my name and email address, as clear as day:
Just for kicks I performed the same procedure on a DRM-protected track I had purchased at the iTunes Store and guess what? My name and email address were visible in it as well.
Not long after this discovery I learned that you don't even have to do the Microsoft Word dance to see the embedded info! Just use iTunes Track Info command and you'll find the same info on the Summary pane, as you can see in Bryan Chaffin's coverage of this same issue last week right here at iPodObserver.com.
So here's where things stand: Your name and email address appear clearly and unencrypted inside every track you buy at the iTunes store, whether the track is DRM-protected or not. This is NOT anything new -- I bought the DRM-protected track several years ago and the iTunes Plus track last week. In other words, the only thing that has changed since then is that you can buy tracks without DRM today.
I do have an issue with Apple embedding my personal info in tracks I purchase, but it's not what you might think. I don't blame Apple or the record labels for wanting to identify the purchaser of a track. (And please, don't bombard me with email and comments telling me I'm wrong. That's my opinion and you're not going to change it.)
And I wouldn't mind them doing it if they would just be up front and honest about it. What I find odious is that they have yet to come out and say that your name and email address are embedded in every track you buy at the iTunes Store. If they'd just do that, I'd be fine with the whole thing. I mean, for gosh sakes, they're not handing out my credit card number or bank routing information. If I were to lose my iPod or MacBook Pro I'd be a lot more concerned about other sensitive data than my my name and email address being embedded in m4a and m4p files.
All Apple needs to do to set things right is be perfectly clear about what personal information is imbedded in the songs you buy. If they would just do that, this whole issue would become a total non-issue.
And that's all he wrote...
Bob "Dr. Mac" LeVitus has been a Macintosh user for a long, long time and has written 49 computer books including Mac OS X Tiger For Dummies and GarageBand for Dummies. He also offers expert technical help and training to Mac users, in real time and at reasonable prices, via telephone, e-mail, and/or unique Internet-enabled remote control software. For more information on Bob and his services, visit www.boblevitus.com.
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