Digital World: MP3 rulebook

In the upcoming battle between iTunes and the Amazon MP3 store, my money is on (and in) Amazon.

By DAVID SHAMAH
October 2, 2007 07:58

 
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In the upcoming battle between iTunes and the Amazon MP3 store, my money is on (and in) Amazon. Apple has all kinds of arcane rules it is being required to/has taken upon itself to follow. Whether the origin of those rules was to make downloading electronic music by customers more palatable to the entertainment companies at the dawn of the digital download age, or whether they were implemented for other reasons, those rules - digital rights management among them - have become passe. The iTunes store all of a sudden looks "old." At Amazon (http://amazonmp3.com), though, the business of downloading MP3s is a business; you pays your money and you gets what you paid for. When you buy a song or an album, you get a product that you can use your way, where and when you want it. Not just on an iPod, but on any MP3 player, a CD (if you care to burn one) or a computer. And you can copy them over and over, not just the seven times Apple limits you to. But even more important is the fact that Amazon will sell to the likes of me and you - unlike Apple, which for various reasons, refuses to sell things on-line to people in Israel. While there are restrictions imposed on the sale of digital entertainment to customers in various countries, it would appear that Amazon is less concerned about overlooking those conditions than Apple. It doesn't matter what billing address I supply when opening an iTunes store account; as soon as I try to buy something, the iTunes site detects my computer's IP as originating in Israel and informs me that, so sorry, but you cannot purchase that song/TV show because of where you live. A clear case of "geographical racism" if you ask me. Not at Amazon, though. Maybe they're being nice to me because I've been a customer for so long, but downloading (and paying) from the Amazon store was clear, easy and successful when I tried it last week. Before you buy, you're asked to download and install a downloader that lets you pause, stop and start downloads of songs you buy. When you download a song, it gets saved to a directory you guide it to (or a default directory); if you have a music management program like iTunes or Windows Media Player installed, the Amazon downloader will automatically list the song in your program's library. And, once you've made a purchase (or downloaded one of the many free songs offered), the store, in the inimitable Amazon manner, will analyze what you've bought and make recommendations for future purchases based on Amazon's super-secret recommendation algorithm. The downloader, while not required to purchase songs, makes buying smoother and easier. Without it, you're limited to purchasing individual songs (no albums) in separate transactions. Plus, they throw in a free song when you install the downloader. Purchasing is easy - maybe too easy, because if you're a registered Amazon customer, Amazon one-click purchasing is the default purchase option; you have to be careful if you want to input another credit card. The Amazon store has about 2 million songs in "stock," representing the catalogs of EMI and Universal (but not Sony BMG and Warner - Rolling Stones yes, Beatles and Springsteen no), plus some independent labels. Altogether, those catalogs represented about 40% of recorded music - all available with digital rights management restrictions that have hampered consumer use of nearly every other download service (except for eMusic, which doesn't have restrictions and will sell to anyone anywhere - but has a far smaller selection). There was a time I would have pooh-poohed any music download service, especially to purchase music I already owned - often several times over, on vinyl, cassette tape and CD. The appeal of iTunes and most of the other music download services (which, as an Israeli resident, were mostly not available to me anyway) was limited, and many users justify downloading music from p2p sites because they feel they've paid enough to record companies over time. That music is certainly "DRM free." And then there's StationRipper (http://www.stationripper.com/) other similar programs, which let you record from Internet radio sites - another good way to build up a music collection. But the "free" methods all have their drawbacks, with Internet radio songs usually not "clean" (a voiceover or a lead from a previous song marring a few seconds of the music) or the (admittedly very remote) threat of the "download police" raiding your PC for illegal downloads and slapping you with a huge fine. And Amazon's music, while not restricted in use, cannot be transferred to others, according to the Terms of Use (http://tinyurl.com/2n73uw) - indeed, you can move the music to just one device, a condition even the most fierce advocates for DRM have a problem with. The terms of service for the iTunes store (http://www.apple.com/legal/itunes/us/service.html) is quite similar to Amazon's - but the difference between the two is that Amazon apparently isn't interested in acting as a cop on your computer. There's no equivalent of FairPlay or PlaysForSure on Amazon files (to be fair, EMI music sold on iTunes is now also unrestricted). So, there's no built-in limitation on copying the file to different computers or devices. And, most important to me, although the Amazon site's terms of service clearly and specifically rules out purchases by non-US residents, the downloader either didn't care about the location of the downloaded item, or deliberately bypassed the reading. With nearly all other services I could never get in the front door, being told at the entrance that "my kind" was not welcome. Not so with Amazon - I'm free to go to the download site and spend, spend, spend! With DRM becoming less of an issue, it's also very unlikely that publishers will lean on Amazon to enforce this proviso - because I can always go shopping at the "free store" for what I need. With Amazon, what counts is not who you are, but how much you've got. Score one for capitalism! http://digital.newzgeek.com

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