Digital Music: Rent Or Own?

For music lovers, the advent of the <a href="">iTunes</a> online music store has been an incredible boon. The ability to legally download individual tracks from a huge catalog at 99 cents a pop is delicious (and a little dangerous for your wallet).

Valerie Potter, Contributor

July 27, 2006

3 Min Read

For music lovers, the advent of the iTunes online music store has been an incredible boon. The ability to legally download individual tracks from a huge catalog at 99 cents a pop is delicious (and a little dangerous for your wallet).If that sounds a bit pricey, there's an alternative: music subscription services that offer unlimited downloads for a flat monthly fee, usually around $10. The catch? With these services, you don't own the music you download--you just rent it for as long as you pay the monthly fee. As soon as you stop paying, the digital rights management coding in the music files prevents them from being played.

Of course, there are those, such as Internet activist Cory Doctorow, who argue that even when you pay for individual tracks or albums from iTunes and its competitors, you don't really own the music. That's because those files, too, contain DRM coding that places restrictions on what you can do with the music you've paid for. And there's always the possibility that the DRM coding will work improperly and prevent honest paying customers from playing their own music. Indeed, several readers reported just such problems at last week's blog post from my colleague Barbara Krasnoff.

Nevertheless, most of us are willing to put up with DRM to get the music we want. But the debate rages on: Is it better to rent all the music you want for a low monthly fee, or pay more to own all your downloads?

Two groups that have largely been left out of this debate are Mac and Linux users. The major music subscription services use a DRM scheme in their client software that was developed by Microsoft, which has little interest in making it compatible with non-Windows platforms. This has left Linux and Mac users with no choice but to purchase digital music outright--or download it illegally.

However, two of the biggest music subscription providers, Rhapsody and Napster, have recently launched Web-based services that do work with Linux and OS X. Music junkie Matt McKenzie took both services for a spin on OS X, Fedora Core 4, and Ubuntu Linux (as well as Windows XP for the sake of comparison) and found mixed results. Can OS X and Linux users get unlimited plays via the Web player for $10 per month? Yes. Do they get as many features as subscribers using the Windows-only client software, who also pay $10 a month? No. Is that fair? Not in my book.

If Linux and Mac users want to partake of the all-you-can-eat musical buffet, though, these services are their only option for now. As McKenzie notes, it's at least worth trying out Rhapsody (but not Napster) for a month or two.

And if you're looking to really own your music outright, not some DRM-saddled version that might go poof someday, the story provides a list of alternative music-download sites. You won't find the same mass-market, major-label fare that the big boys provide, but you'll discover a great variety of off-the-beaten-track tunes from small labels and independent artists.

What's your digital music preference--rent or own? DRM or no DRM? Tell us about your favorite music-download site. (Don't forget to include URLs.)

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