Maybe you can keep it after all…

Thursday, February 17th, 2005 @ 7:56 pm | Tech

In relation to my Napster article that was published today (see last post), I just learned that some resourceful Napster users have figured out how to circumvent Napster’s copy protection.

Napster’s files are encoded in Windows Media (.wma) format, and use Microsoft’s Janus DRM (digital rights management) technology. Napster files cannot be burned to CD or freely copied unless they’ve been purchased, and if you cancel your subscription, your downloaded music will no longer play.

This workaround uses Winamp plugins that encode the files into .mp3 or .wav format in real-time. Newer versions of Winamp are bundled with a Windows Media plugin that plays your .wma files (no more Windows Media Player!). With a properly configured output plugin, it’s fairly trivial to rip your protected .wma files into free .mp3 or .wav files. This is different than simply recording a .wav file from the output of your sound card (ala Napster’s claims).

I’ve tested this with the out_lame plugin, which encodes the file currently playing into .mp3 format. It can be a little touchy (it took over half an hour to figure out how to keep Winamp from crashing). Just load your playlist, configure the plugin in Options -> Preferences -> Plugins -> Output, and hit the play button.

For iTunes users, the Hymn Project software allows you to to convert Apple’s protected AAC format into free, unprotected formats. (This is good if you want to play your purchased iTunes music in a non-iPod player.)

All of this demonstrates the difficulty (and ultimate futility) of protecting digital media. Copy protection schemes can be broken or bypassed, and many DRM schemes ultimately irritate and inconvenience consumers. It’s good that services such as iTunes and Napster exist to provide consumers with digital music downloads, while compensating artists and record labels (well, mostly record labels). But ultimately, the record industry may have to find new avenues for making a profit, because listeners aren’t going to stop sharing and aquiring free music.

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