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Software Circulating The Web Breaks Microsoft DRM, Sparks Fair-Use Debate

The new tool reportedly works only on music files containing digital rights management code from versions 10 and 11 of Windows Media Player.
An application that reportedly removes the copyright protection code in music licensed through Windows Media player has been circulating the Web, sparking debate on fair use and at least one open letter to Microsoft not to fix the hole that makes the hack possible.

Called FairUse4WM, the application provides a graphical user interface for the DRM removal program called "drmdbg," simplifying the process of running files through the application. The new tool reportedly works only on music files containing digital rights management code from versions 10 and 11 of Windows Media player. The application can only work on one file at a time.

The existence of the tool was reported on numerous tech sites, including Engadget, and Gizmodo.

While applications that break DRM code in Windows Media and other music files are not new, this particular application is unique because it could be used to free tunes downloaded on PCs through Windows Media-supported subscription services, such as those offered by Yahoo and Napster. Engadget reported that the tool made it possible to play subscription tunes downloaded from Napster on the Apple Mac, which the service doesn't normally support.

"This isn't the first program to break DRM," Joe Wilcox, analyst for Jupiter Research, said Tuesday. "What's different here is its ability to strip DRM from subscription content."

Subscription services store music on a PC, so it can be moved to a portable media player. The DRM application prevents the music from being copied to a disk, and contains a 30-day timer that's reset every time the subscription is renewed. No renewal, and the files are deactivated.

Using the latest DRM breaker to circumvent copyright protection on a subscription service is theft, Wilcox said. "If you use the software for something you've rented and not bought, then you're stealing."

The issue, however, becomes less clear for tunes bought through an online music store that only supports Windows Media player. FairUse4WM could, for example, be used to remove the DRM code, so the file could be played on Apple Computer's iPod portable player.

Some people would argue that's fair use, since the person bought the music. Publishers, however, would argue that fair use is defined in the DRM software chosen by the copyright owner.

The release of the tool brought heated debate on the Web.

"If you purchase your content and use this tool, then I see no problem and I fully support your use of this tool," a person who identified himself as a writer/editor on DRM Blog, said in a posting on Engadget. "If you did not purchase your content then you have no right to use this tool."

Another anonymous person argued against using the tool, so not to encourage more copyright protection laws.

"Circumventing DRM just gives the content providers ammo when they try to get Congress to pass anti-circumvention legislation," the person wrote.

In an open letter to Microsoft, Engadget editors called on Microsoft not to patch the vulnerability in Windows DRM that made it possible for the tool to work. The site argued that the tool would boost music sales and the use of subscription services.

"Being able to strip out the DRM on a file actually makes it more useful " and thus more valuable " for the consumer," the letter said.

The restrictions DRM places on the use of music encourages more consumers to get their music illegally from peer-to-peer networks, the site argued.

"The only way for DRM to be successful is if it's painless and seamless, and we get tons of emails from consumers complaining about how hard it is to get Napster, Rhapsody, Yahoo Music Unlimited, etc. tracks onto their players" or even their Macs, the letter said.

Microsoft was not immediately available for comment.