Walmart to Leave DRM Servers Running

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Mega-retailer Walmart has been a (very small) force in the digital music industry for a few years now, first selling DRM-protected music in WMA format, and eventually converting to a DRM-free MP3 service. Last week, however Walmart warned its customers it would be shutting down the DRM key servers that authorize protected music purchased through Walmart: after October 9, customers would no longer be able to transfer the music to new computers or devices because there would be no way to authorize those devices. Walmart advised customers to burn the music to CD and, if necessary, re-rip it back into their computers using a DRM-free format. Which is essentially what those dreaded “pirates” do who are allegedly ruining the music industry, but we’ll let that point slide.

Now, Walmart has relented, sending an email note to customers saying the company plans to leave its DRM servers online for the time being. “We have decided to maintain our digital rights management (DRM) servers for the present time,” the company wrote in the message. “What this means to you is that our existing service continues and there is no action required on your part. Our customer service team will continue to assist with DRM issues for protected windows media audio (WMA) files purchased from Walmart.com.”

The whole scenario is eerily reminiscent of when MSN Music threatened to shut off its DRM servers earlier this year, meaning anyone who bought DRM-protected music through MSN Music wouldn’t be able to authorize it on new systems. Although MSN Music was never, itself, a major force in online music sales, the hue and cry from customers was apparently enough to make Microsoft backpedal for at least three more years.

The fiascos only serve to highlight how DRM technologies interfere with consumers’ reasonable expectations of how they can use media they’ve purchased…and how DRM makes consumers wary of digital media in general. Is it any wonder that DRM-free music—which consumers can move back and forth between computers and devices as needed with no hassles—has been a growing force in the digital music marketplace?

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