Do You Control Your Data?

May 2, 2008  (Jeffrey Kabbe)

One of the drawbacks of Digital Rights Management (DRM) protections on media (typically audio and video) files is that your computer must be authorized to play the media file. Opponents of DRM have often asked the question, “what happens when the company that sold the DRM-protected media goes out of business?” With no service to authorize your computer to play the media file, your purchase becomes worthless.

Those fears were realized last week when Microsoft announced that it would be shutting down its PlaysForSure authentication servers. The MSN Music Store sold DRM-protected music that could be played on up to five computers (music purchased from the iTunes Store works the same way). Once at the five computer limit, you can add a new computer be deactivating one of the five authorized computers and authorizing the new computer. In theory this was supposed to allow you to keep your music forever. Of course, “forever” was never really promised. And now, with the shutdown of the MSN Music authorization servers, customers will be limited to playing their purchased music on whatever five computers are authorized as of August 31, 2008. When those five computers break, are sold, or stored in the basement, kiss your “investment” goodbye.

One of the guiding principles behind the anti-DRM movement is the idea that people should control their own data. This principle applies not only to DRM, but also to the services and applications that store your data. I am a strong supporter up to a point. We try to keep our important data in services and applications that make the data accessible. Database applications and online services should allow data to be exported in multiple formats. Or, even better, they should allow direct access to the data (granted, this is much easier when the data is in a database and can be accessed with SQL rather than being stored in a proprietary file format).

The other side of data control is application (or vender) lock-in. Many people are Microsoft Word users today solely for that reason. The same could be said of many iTunes or Windows Media Player users. Applications with good import and export features help to minimize application lock-in. As I have discussed before, I do admit to some application lock-in. I try to stay away from monolithic applications that don’t allow me to access my data. But I don’t limit myself to only open standards.

So I ask, how important is data accessibility to you? Is it something you have ever thought about? Does it drive your decision-making? If so, for what kinds of data? And what kind products? What products have you chosen where data accessibility was the primary factor? What products have you ruled out primarily on that basis?

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