Unbranding the Sheep: Screw The Rules! We Have Money!

If you don’t directly follow the IT newsletters and RSS feeds, you might have missed a little tidbit about Microsoft shutting down their DRM key servers on August 31st for MSN Music files figuring they were no longer needed with the Zune setup. This has a lot of people from sites like Ars, Slashdot and INQuirer crying for blood. To most people, they admit that even though the MSN music service was terrible to begin with from top to bottom, it shows how scary Digital Rights Management (DRM) can really be, as reading between the lines, it becomes obvious that after August 31st, people that need to re-register their DRM keys – or worse, don’t have them, as Windows Media Player 11 hasn’t let users back them up from it’s inception – will not be able to play music they bought legally. They will not get any money back, just a “tough luck” and a link to the Zune store, or directives to intentionally break their EULA and burn and re-copy their music to and from a CD (hurting audio quality in the process). Most people are concerned about other DRM such as that in iTunes music, and in my industry, the DRM that comes pre-packaged with Microsoft Windows, Office, and just about any other software from any large vendor.

Naturally, being a writer who specializes in the video game industry, I’m a bit more concerned about video games, especially as downloadable content – from horse armour to full scale games – becomes more normal in our industry.

I regularly use XBox Live Arcade and the Wii Virtual Console, and thankfully, in terms of the DRM, I’ve not had problems. Of course, that’s because none of my machines have gone down, and I haven’t had to have any work done on anything; all things considered, especially with the 360, I’ve been fortunate, and that’s something too many people cannot say. Even with full support, Microsoft’s DRMed games, combined with the awful failure rate of the consoles themselves, have been a massive headache for anyone who’s had the misfortune of having to have their consoles replaced, and as par for the course for them as a company, Microsoft has been exceptionally slow to find a fix for their problems, to the point where it can be questioned if they’re really trying or not. However, despite how clunky, confusing and annoying it is, it IS possible to play games on a system that has been replaced, and it IS possible – though unlikely – to get a straight, satisfactory answer out of Microsoft’s overwhelmed tech support.

As for Nintendo, they are – as usual – much easier to deal with: your stuff breaks, it gets moved onto a new system by Nintendo, if the repairs come to that; combine that with Nintendo’s stellar support record and the fact that their systems typically have a much longer lifespan in general (my twenty-two year old NES has outlasted three separate Playstation 2s). However, you still have to send your system in for repairs, which can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. This doesn’t bother me TOO much, but that’s only because I rarely play my Wii lately. If it was my 360 in that situation, I’d likely be climbing up the walls, and buying a new Wii – or a used one from a friend – would nullify this agreement. You KNOW things are bad when users on forums – including Nintendo’s own forums – are calling for a way to authorize and de-authorize content, like Apple’s iTunes service. Imagine that! A world where the DRM that comes with ITUNES is looked upon as favourable!

Either way, it involves games that are more rented than bought, with licensing that puts you at the mercy of the company; I can’t bring over my Virtual Console version of Super Mario Bros. to my brother’s Wii to show him what a real game is made of, but I can bring my ancient NES cartridge and hope it’s working that day. And if this debacle is any indication, it shows that what’s popular and hot today could be garbage tomorrow. That’s a scary thought, and gives me a flinching pause whenever I buy anything through a download service, even Nintendo’s, because even though Nintendo has made promises in their User Agreement, and in public statements, that the Virtual Console and support for it will be transferred beyond the life of the Wii, terms of service are always subject to change, and if I remember correctly, that’s the same thing Microsoft said about their music, too.

As for Microsoft, they’re on the clock, because the MSN Music issue is not the first time DRM that required Microsoft products has been left in the dust, with it’s users being left to wonder what happened. Personally, I have little faith that Microsoft – or any online distributor – will hold to supporting their products even after they become technically obsolete. Theoretically, my XBLA version of Streets of Rage II and Sonic the Hedgehog could become unplayable long before my actual, old cartridge versions, and the more Microsoft shoots themselves in the foot, the more likely that becomes.

Until these issues are taken care of, and a balance is struck between legitimately protecting the rights of the publisher and protecting the consumer from Draconian measures that only serve to hurt them in the long run, digital distribution will only be a niche market in a console environment, and until consoles are rendered to be obsolete themselves, that is a huge chunk of pie that no self-respecting company can afford to leave on the table.

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