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Many folks have told me that they refuse to upgrade to Vista because of its Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology that supposedly makes it impossible to play “ripped” music. DRM is a controversial subject; it’s not just content thieves who hate it. Many people who legitimately buy music and other protected content are outraged when they find they’re unable to play that content when and where they want after they’ve paid for it.

The biggest problem with DRM is that it takes a “guilty until proven innocent” approach to copyright protection. And that angers those customers or potential customers who have no intention of stealing, but just want to be able to fully use and enjoy what they’ve bought.

Last week, a new version of a popular DRM cracking tool was released that, according to reports, removes DRM protection from files without any degradation in the quality. This works on both XP and Vista. My friend George Ou wrote about it in his blog post.

Some folks are hailing this software as the solution to the DRM “problem” – but there’s just one minor problem with that: using it is illegal. Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which was signed into law in the U.S. by Bill Clinton in 1998, any act to circumvent copy protection is a federal offense. That’s true even if you don’t commit an actual copyright infringement.

Music companies, movie studios and other content providers, along with software vendors, keep trying to create “fool proof” copy protection systems but hackers keep finding ways to crack them. That leads the companies to impose ever more restrictive technology on their customers, and it turns into a vicious cycle. The thieves, who don’t care about breaking laws anyway, still manage to access the content. The ones who suffer are the law abiding folks who have to put up with increasing inconvenience and limitations on their legitimately purchased songs, movies or software.

I had one reader bring up an interesting theory. He thinks the availability of DRM cracking software could actually lead to more sales for content providers. He notes that after downloading the crack, he’s purchased a large number of songs because he no longer has to be afraid that he’ll spend the money and then the copyright protection technology will prevent him from playing them.

It sounds counter-intuitive, but it actually makes some sense when you think about it. Who wants to throw away money on something that you know from experience may not work? But if you know that you can rip out the DRM that causes the problems, you might indeed be more willing to pay.

Just as some people argue that privacy invasions are okay because “if you aren’t doing anything wrong, you don’t have anything to worry about,” those same folks will often tell you that DRM isn’t a problem unless you’re using stolen content or software. It would be nice if that were true, but ’tain’t necessarily so.

A case in point: I just spent several days struggling with a sudden problem involving my Nvidia display drivers freezing up on Vista. I’ll be writing about it here in more depth if/when I find a solution, but it seems to be the problem described in this forum.

At one point in the troubleshooting process, I was advised to download and install a certain update from Microsoft. Downloading it required going through the Windows Genuine Advantage verification process. No problem, I thought. My copy of Vista is legit and I’ve run WGA verification on it many times.

This time, though, I got a response that “This copy of Windows did not pass genuine validation. Either an unauthorized change was made to your Windows license or a software program installed on this computer is not currently compatible with Windows.” What’s up with that? This same copy of Vista has passed with flying colors dozens of times in the past. And there’s not a clue as to what change or software program is now causing it to fail.

DRM is far from perfect, and its imperfections are alienating a lot of people who might otherwise buy digital music. Some have suggested that it’s the overall attitude of the record companies, from imposing DRM hassles on their customers to instituting lawsuits through RIAA, that’s really responsible for slumps in sales and that the harder the companies try to exert dictatorial control over their customers, the more of those customers will desert them and turn to illegal downloading or just abandon digital music altogether. In fact, there is some evidence of the latter trend, in recent reports that sales of old vinyl albums and vintage CDs are actually on the rise.

What do you think? Are content providers and software vendors shooting themselves in the foot by adding more and more layers of copy protection to their products? Have you avoided installing Vista because of fears about the DRM? Would you buy more music if you didn’t have to worry about DRM restricting your use of it after you pay for it? Have you ever been denied access to Windows updates due to WGA verification failure even though you know your copy of Windows is legal? Would sales increase if companies just did away with DRM completely? Or are companies just doing what they have to do to protect their rights and keep dishonest people from stealing?

Deb Shinder, MVP