DRM Doesn't Scale

In the world of technology, geeks, and hackers, saying something doesn’t scale is one of the worst things you can say.

But in the case of DRM, it’s true and it’s time to admit it and move on.

We (the wilson family) are moving very quickly to a peer to peer archicture in our home music setup.

About five years ago, I decided to create an all digital system for playing music at home.

It was based on a central server architecture and we selected the music servers from Request Media (formerly Audio Request).

We connected these servers to a multi-room audio system and we control them with a combination of crestron panels, java clients, and web browsers throughout our home.

After having that system for a couple years, we decided we wanted it at our second home at the beach.  So we took one of the servers out to long island and connected it to our house in the city via our cable modem internet connection so it could synch with the main server.  It was simple to do.

We control that server with our TV set, java clients, and web browsers.

We have been buying CDs, ripping them onto our servers, and then putting the CDs away for posterity for the past five years and its worked great in both homes.

But in the past year, the music has been migrating off of the servers onto the growing array of computers we have in our homes.  There are a ton of reasons for it, but I think the main one is the emergence of the iPod as the way everyone wants to listen to music outside of the home.

So each of us, including our kids, have iTunes on our computers, and an iPod that we synch to.  We pull the music off the servers and onto our computers.

And now, at an ever increasing rate, we buy music directly from iTunes onto our computers, bypassing the Request servers completely.  That is a big problem that I have not come up with a good soultion for since Request can’t deal with the DRM that iTunes uses.  We often end up buying music two or three times, a couple times via iTunes (multiple people) and then we buy the CD to get the music onto our servers.

iTunes has a music sharing service built into it so we’ve started connecting to each other’s computers and sharing music with each other, again bypassing the Request servers.  That tends to limit the number of times we buy a song on iTunes, but since there’s no single directory for all of our shared music, it doesn’t solve the issue completely.

And then last spring, I connected a low end Dell PC which runs two applications, iTunes and Rhapsody, to the music systems in both homes.  And using the music sharing services, we can play music anywhere in either home that resides on any computer.

Although we still use the Request servers to play music, we are using them less and less and I see a time coming when we won’t use them at all.

So how is this related to DRM and the scaling issues?

I recently got the Gotham Gal a new Mac mini for her office.  I signed her up for iTunes and configured it to use the same account everyone uses.  She bought some music and when she went to play it, she got the message that the account can only serve 5 users.  So she bought the music, paid for it, and she can’t even play it on her own computer.  That’s the DRM wreaking havoc on our home music system.

In the central server architecture, we bought the music once on a CD, put it on the central server, and then were able to play it in any room in our two homes.  That makes sense.

In the peer to peer world, with DRM working behind the scenes, we end up buying the music several times, and then can’t play it on every computer we own.  That doesn’t make sense.

So maybe they should up the DRM limit to 10 users?  That might work, but we’ve got close to 10 computers in our two homes when you include the two dedicated machines we use to play music, the five computers (one for each person), a kitchen computer, and shared machine in our beach house because not everyone has a laptop to bring with them. 

What if we get a couple more laptops? 

When is enough enough? 

What if we get a few more dedicated music computers so we can play different music in different rooms in the house?

After thinking about this problem for the past couple months, I think its pretty clear that DRM doesn’t scale.

What we need is music dial tone.

Then DRM can scale.  Either you have the dial tone or you don’t.  It will be that simple.

Until then, we are going to be fighting an every increasing battle with complexity that is going to hamper the migration from the analog music business to the digital music business.  And that sucks for everyone who loves music.

#VC & Technology