Business decisions leaves customers out in the cold

Customers of MSN Music have until August 31, 2008 to finalize the authorizations on their music purchases, because after that date MSN Music’s servers will stop working.

The date was announced by MSN Entertainment and Video Services manager Rob Bennett, who sent an e-mail to customers last Tuesday describing the situation:

“As of August 31, 2008, we will no longer be able to support the retrieval of license keys for the songs you purchased from MSN Music or the authorization of additional computers,” writes Bennett. “You will need to obtain a license key for each of your songs downloaded from MSN Music on any new computer, and you must do so before August 31, 2008. If you attempt to transfer your songs to additional computers after August 31, 2008, those songs will not successfully play.”

Like iTunes, PlaysForSure authorizations are bound not only to a user’s individual computer, but to that particular instance of their operating system as well. If a user has to rebuild, upgrade, or otherwise reinstall his or her operating system, authorizations for MSN Music subscriptions will be reset.

MSN Music customers have little recourse, unfortunately. Aside from permanently deciding which computers will keep their account’s authorization – once August 31 passes, authorizations cannot be changed – users have the option of burning purchased MSN Music to CD and then re-ripping the music to another compressed format, such as MP3. However, the process of “transcoding” (converting) lossy-compressed files (as WMA files are) to another lossy format (such as MP3) significantly degrades the quality of the resulting MP3 file. Users can also burn their music to CD and convert to a lossless format, such as FLAC, but lossless formats consume significantly more space in order to make a perfect copy of already-degraded WMA files.

Bennett insists that files purchased from MSN Music will continue to work – but only on authorized computers. “If I authorize one of my PCs, never get rid of it for the rest of my life, and never upgrade its OS, I will be able to play my tracks forever,” writes Ars Technica’s Jacqui Cheng, who adds that “this technicality is not rooted in reality—the authorizations will now expire when the computer does, for whatever reason.”

Being that purchasers do not actually own DRM-protected music, users are unfortunately left to the mercy of their DRM’s enforcer. At the time of this writing, Microsoft has not stated any intentions to provide users with refunds.

As companies such as Microsoft and Apple transition their DRM systems – sometimes to other DRM platforms, and sometimes to DRM-free platforms – it is not inconceivable that purchases of other, lesser-known music stores can expect a similar fate, if that store uses DRM. Like MSN Music, Sony’s CONNECT music store left users out in the cold last August, when it announced its servers would shut down on March 2008.

"We shipped it on Saturday. Then on Sunday, we rested." -- Steve Jobs on the iPad launch
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