Another DRM Music Store Scheme Bites the Dust – Wal-Mart Shuts Off DRMed Music

Sometimes, it’s just plain difficult to be an honest customer these days. This was proven again with the shut down of Wal-Mart’s DRM music server.

Note: This is an article I wrote that was published elsewhere first. It has been republished here for archival purposes

There is a report on BoingBoing. Basically, Wal-Mart started their music service with a DRM-based scheme. About a year ago now, Wal-Mart became a part of an exodus of music stores fleeing DRM amid worries that other services that already dropped DRM would simply outperform them. While Wal-Mart dropping DRM entirely may be seen as a great move forward, there is a downfall that has been brought to everyone’s attention. BoingBoing highlighted that in a letter sent by Wal-Mart to one of their customers:

We hope you are enjoying the increased music quality/bitrate and the improved usability of Walmart’s MP3 music downloads. We began offering MP3s in August 2007 and have offered only DRM (digital rights management) -free MP3s since February 2008. As the final stage of our transition to a full DRM-free MP3 download store, Walmart will be shutting down our digital rights management system that supports protected songs and albums purchased from our site.

If you have purchased protected WMA music files from our site prior to Feb 2008, we strongly recommend that you back up your songs by burning them to a recordable audio CD. By backing up your songs, you will be able to access them from any personal computer. This change does not impact songs or albums purchased after Feb 2008, as those are DRM-free.

Beginning October 9, we will no longer be able to assist with digital rights management issues for protected WMA files purchased from If you do not back up your files before this date, you will no longer be able to transfer your songs to other computers or access your songs after changing or reinstalling your operating system or in the event of a system crash. Your music and video collections will still play on the originally authorized computer.

Thank you for using for music downloads. We are working hard to make our store better than ever and easier to use.

The EFF noted how this is the third store to drop their DRM servers, effectively locking customers out of their own legally purchased music. While highlighting and discussing at length a high-profile sale of Napster, we also noted these being MSN music and Yahoo!’s music services.

Users in the past bought music from such services, whether out of fear of being prosecuted, wanting to be a more honest customer, a simplified way of getting music legitimately, or some other reason. Frequently, the idea of honesty on the customers side plays a huge role in all of this, but it seems that many users have gotten financially burned as a result, both in the past and present. Most people in the file-sharing realm will point to this as simply being another reason why people turn to file-sharing in the first place with the age-old reason of not wanting to be “ripped off”. This, by many, was seen as the latest example.

Cory Doctorow basically described it as how those who take the risks of downloading music from p2p rather than buying music from an online music store that uses DRM. The way this move is seen, it is also making it harder and harder to differentiate between DRM-based music stores and a typical run-of-the-mill scam website. With this kind of thinking being re-enforced, it is also likely going to hurt the remaining DRM based music stores as more users ask questions like, “How do I know that you aren’t going to some day shut down the server and leave me locked out of my music that I paid for anyway?”

To be fair, Wal-Mart, unlike Yahoo! at first, offered a way out by saying that users who want to save their music collections from a DRM related disaster, that they could burn them onto CD. One can only hope that Wal-Mart customers didn’t purchase several hours worth of music.

The move also, once again, raises the viability of DRM. Indeed, iTunes has been seen as evidence that DRM-based music stores can exist, but the down side is the fact that the music store also maintains a monopoly on the digital music store market for mainstream music. Many observers simply suggest that DRM’s future in the online music market at this point is extremely limited. So the real question is, how long will the remaining stores last?

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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