Computers: I Can’t Use it Because I Bought it

Some time ago, I bought a copy of SimCity 3000. I’ve always liked the Sim games, and none of them have ever quite matched the lasting appeal of SimCity. The problem now is that it won’t run in Windows XP, so I can’t play it any more.

Actually, that’s not quite true. The game itself, apparently, should work just fine in XP. The bit that fails is the check at the beginning to see if you have the original CD. The copy protection they’ve used fails with XP’s CD-ROM drivers, so the game won’t run. The bit that annoys me about this is that if I’d just ripped a copy of the game off from someone else, I’d have a version with the copy protection stripped off it, and it would work. Because I actually paid for the game, I now can’t use it. Pay more, and get less.

We’re going to hit this sort of problem more and more. If you use file sharing software to get your MP3 files, you’ll get files that you can then do whatever you like with – put them on all of your computers, put them on your MP3 player, burn them to CD to play then in the car, keep good backups of them, and so on. If you *buy* your music, most of the services you could use will only sell to you in a controlled format, that will then stop you from doing some of those things. You might be able to put copies on two computers, then copy it to your MP3 player, but then find it won’t let you put it anywhere else, because you’ve reached your limit. You may not be able to burn CDs at all. And with all of the services I’ve seen so far, they’re not offering you anything for much less money than a CD would have cost you.

It’s all about DRM – Digital Rights Management – file formats that allow the copyright owner to control what users can do with the data – be it music, videos, or even office documents. The problem is that copyright holders don’t trust us all to use their stuff, and pay for what we use, if we have the option of just using their stuff and not paying.

They have a point, but they’re going to get a bit stuck, I suspect, when people realise that they’re being offered less for more.

I hardly ever listen to music in any format other than MP3. When I buy a CD, the first thing I do is rip it to MP3 files, then put it away. For one thing, the artists do deserve to make some money out of it, and from a purely practical point of view, I’m on a dial up connection, so downloading whole CDs worth of MP3s isn’t a good option. Add to that the nice part of getting an actual physical package to hold, with a nicely printed booklet, and such like, and it’s worth the £10 – £15 to me.

Napster has just relaunched in the UK. This isn’t the evil file trading Napster from a few years ago that so upset Lars and the boys. It’s been nicely sanitised by the record companies. Unfortunately, they want that same £10 to give me the ability to download an album’s worth of music to burn onto CD, and only then if I’m already subscribing to their service for £10 a month. Pay more, and get less.

So what’s the alternatives? Well, until all CDs get copy protected so we can’t rip them to MP3 files, we can keep buying CDs, but the record companies are starting to clamp down on that. Some of the smaller players in the online music sales market are differentiating themselves by actually selling unprotected MP3s, which is pretty much ideal if their prices are reasonable. If nothing else, they’ll put a bit of pressure on the bigger services to offer more relaxed controls.

Another interesting idea I’ve tried recently is iRATE radio. It’s free software, so there’s no-one trying to make big money out of it. It’s a little client program that runs on your computer, and goes off and downloads MP3s from a few artists, and plays them to you. You tell it what you think. It matches that to what other people liked, and goes off and finds other stuff it thinks you will like. As you rate more music, it gets better at finding the sort of thing you like, but every now and than it’ll throw something different into the mix. You probably won’t find any big names there, because it only gets music that the artists wanted to make available for free, but when I tried it, it found some surprisingly good stuff. It’s still a very early release, and it’s not too polished yet – you’ll need Java, and Java Web Start to run it – I had to go off and download these seperately – but if you’re up to getting it running, and don’t mind fiddling with it’s slightly underdeveloped interface for a while, you might just find some interesting new music. Pay nothing, and get more.

Sounds like a better deal.