Wal-Mart to Cut the Cord on DRM Downloads

Wal-Mart will soon shut down the servers controlling reauthorization of purchased DRM (digital rights management)-protected WMA music files, Ryan Halford, the company’s computer buyer, indicated on a Wal-Mart blog.

An e-mail sent to Wal-Mart Music customers, a copy of which was posted on the blog BoingBoing, indicates the shutdown will occur Oct. 9.

For several months, Wal-Mart’s online music store has sold MP3 files with no DRM restrictions. Before February, however, the service sold protected WMA files. If those files were loaded onto a new computer, they would have to check in with Wal-Mart’s servers via the Internet as an antipiracy measure.

The retail behemoth warned its digital music customers that as a result of the server shutdown, they would need to burn any tracks purchased before last February onto a CD. Backing up the WMA files onto a CD will enable purchasers to reload them onto any computer. However, failure to do so means users will not be able to play the songs on an unauthorized system.

The result: If the customer buys a new computer — or even swaps out his or her existing computer’s operating system — any WMA files purchased from Wal-Mart prior to last February have no way of calling home to verify that they aren’t being pirated, rendering them inoperative.

Rogue’s Gallery

With the announcement, Wal-Mart joins Microsoft, Sony and Yahoo as former DRM-protected music sellers that have discontinued verification services. As it has in this case, the shutting down of an outlet’s servers — either because the service changed business plans or because it simply went under — often leaves customers in the lurch.

Consumers often pay an unforeseen price in buying DRM-protected music, according to Joshua Martin, a Yankee Group analyst.

“We are moving toward a DRM-free world, and as we move toward that, these concerns will abate,” he told TechNewsWorld.

Unintended Consequences

Maintaining DRM servers to constantly verify that music tracks aren’t being pirated is a business expense for digital content distributors. If a service is no longer making money, it’s a simple decision to pull the plug on the servers.

“This is an indication of things to come from other content distributors. It’s one of the challenges with DRM — you have to maintain it over the long haul. Even Google ended its video DRM some months ago, too. So no distributor is immune to lack of consumer interest, and if you don’t have enough money to pay the bills, you’re not going to continue to support the DRM,” said Martin.

In response to a flood of e-mails from customers with questions about the shutdown, Wal-Mart’s Halford posted an entry on a company blog intended to help users understand what will happen on Oct. 9.

While the decision to shut down servers may make sense on paper, discontinuing support can also result in a highly negative public relations backlash. In fact, Martin believes that, as with Microsoft and Yahoo, Walmart will backtrack on the decision to shut down its DRM servers and provide support for a few more years or provide users with DRM-free MP3 versions of any purchased track.

“I would imagine that once the feedback comes back to them that they will decide to [offer replacement tracks],” he concluded.

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