Amazon Changes Download Policies: DRM Creep or Privacy Nightmare?

Yes, the title is a bit overblown, but I figure that’s how the guys at Gawker make the big bucks. So…

I bought two MP3s today, maybe a half an hour apart. I usually buy music from Amazon, a loyalty I’ve had since they started offering MP3s in 2007 due to their professed commitment to DRM-free music, something that the market hadn’t yet forced iTunes to understand. And I’ve always been happy with ease of purchases, etc.

Today, though, when I was downloading Rose Royce’s classic “Ooh Boy,” something happened that I’d never seen before: it prompted me to “Authorize a device” to download my music onto. I did so with trepidation, thinking that it sounded like they were institute some sort of Digital Rights Management. I tweeted immediately after:

Not much later, I checked out a video on Facebook by Brother Ali, who a friend described as “the greatest blind albino rapper of all time.” (And seriously, dude’s talented! Check him out!) I immediately wanted to own that track. So I went over to buy it on Amazon. I was forced to go through yet another re-install of the Amazon MP3 Downloader. Then, when I clicked on “download your music,” I had yet another “authorize device” script pop up. I selected my computer and… it refused to accept that, as I had already authorized a device with that name.

At that point, I was frustrated and just wanted my music. So I went to the support page and started a chat with a customer support person at Amazon named Sanjit. Below is a partial transcript of my interaction with Sanjit. Emphases are mine, and added for easy skimming:

I am really sorry that you are not able to download the songs. May I have the order number which you want to download?

I was able to download the Rose Royce song
And now I can’t download the Brother Ali song
Even though they’re in the same order.

I am sorry for this I’ve re-sent your purchase to Amazon Cloud Player ( where you can try the download again.

You see, I have the Amazon MP3 downloader so I don’t have to download from the cloud player.
Is going to the cloud player a new, extra step to make the process less convenient?

I understand your concern. But our procedure for MP3 download has been changed. We are not able to send your songs directly to downwloader. We can send it to cloud player where you can launch your downloader as well.

I was confused at this point, and pushed him to explain whether the “authorized device” issue was due to some sort of DRM:

Are you now using DRM on your songs?

I am sorry. The MP3 files you purchase from contain no digital rights management (DRM) restrictions, are provided in an industry standard MP3 format, and should be compatible with most systems capable of reading MP3 audio files.

Okay, so why do I have to authorize a device?
If I’m an Amazon customer, shouldn’t I be able to download music I pay for?
You don’t limit me to ten mailing addresses for my books.

The files you purchase from the Amazon MP3 Store are free of any digital rights management software to allow you more freedom with managing your music library. It seems that download is not working properly. I would request you to please try to uninstall your downloader and reinstall it once.

The download worked once I went into the cloud player.
But you’re evading my question.
Why do I have to authorize my device?
Surely, if Amazon has instituted a new policy on this, they have a boxed answer ready for people who are confused or upset by it, because it does seem suggestive of DRM.
If the files are DRM-free, I can move them from device to device. So why am I limited to downloading to only 10 devices?
I’m assuming there has now been a script change for you guys indicating that if I ask this question, you should answer in a certain way. I’m just curious what Amazon’s official response is, here.
Sanjit? You still there bro?

Tad, there is no restriction to use the songs on different devices. You can use downloaded songs on multiple device. However, Amazon Cloud Drive and Amazon Cloud Player allow access from up to 10 devices. This includes mobile devices, different computers, and different browsers on the same computer.
The device limit can be reached if your web browser cookies are deleted or if your browser is set to automatically delete cookies.

After that, I thanked him for his help, and told him I would take what he has told me under advisement as I consider whether I want to continue to use Amazon as my MP3 retailer.

I know that trying to gauge the direction and strategy of a tech corporation from the position of a lowly customer is something akin to Kremlinology or reading tea leaves. That said, it can also be quite fun, which is why the Apple fan boards are always so active.

What is Amazon heading toward with this new “user authorization” protocol? Personally, I can think of three possibilities:

  1. It was a compromise negotiated with music labels for the cloud player. Nothing will change as far as Amazon’s general policies on MP3 DRM, and maybe they’ll be able to bring in artists or labels who had been previously adverse to the cloud player.
  2. It’s a back door to DRM. Sure, Amazon won a lot of customers by going DRM-free, and they got to flex a little corporate muscle at Apple and force them to reverse course. They’re both retailers, of course they want to prove market influence, especially coming out of the gate. But DRM has been good to Amazon. They have the most popular and least open reading device in the Kindle. The DRM on their video downloads is so tight that Mac and Linux users can only stream video they’ve purchased. This could be step one of a slow creep toward DRM– because DRM makes labels happy and retailers happy, too, by forcing repeated purchases of the same file. If they do it slowly and quietly, maybe consumers won’t raise a ruckus, as they’re now locked in by years of use and the synergy of things like the Kindle Fire and Amazon Prime.
  3. DRM is a Red Herring. This is actually all about what Sanjit said about cookies.  Rich consumer user data is cash in the bank for retailers and marketers. And Amazon is both. Is it possible that really this just an annoyance to keep users from flushing cookies from Amazon? Is user data Amazon’s Next Big Thing? It seems to be what everyone’s banking on with Facebook. Get people to always be at least partially on your site, and you get rich minable data on your customers that they would never volunteer.

Of these, I’m hopeful that it’s number one, afraid it’s number two, and number three seems like it’s reaching a bit.

I’m curious, though, if anyone else has any theories as to the reasons for this change? Or if anyone might be able to point me to a source at Amazon that can make it clearer?


La Guardia Reads the Sunday Funnies

Tomorrow marks the birthday of Fiorello La Guardia, 99th mayor of New York City.

In the opening monologue of his 1958 play Comic Strip, George Panetta turns almost immediately to one of the most powerful cultural memories of New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia:

Now, I was a kid in the days of Fiorello LaGuardia– remember him, LaGuardia? The Little Flower? Maybe he’s one of the reasons I grew up. He loved all us kids in New York City, used to read the comic strips to us on Sundays– worried and looked after us all the time.

On June 30, 1945, New York’s newspaper delivery drivers began a strike that would last 17 days, refusing to distribute any paper in the city except for the leftist (and highly pro-labor) PM… a paper that might be best remembered by comics lovers for publishing the wartime political cartoons of Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel.

For those who don’t mind reading between the lines, there’s an excellent contemporary account of the strike from the newspaper publishers’ perspective that can be found in the Prelinger Archives collection at The Internet Archive. Obviously very biased, but an interesting account of how a city dealt with a major media shutdown.

On July 1, La Guardia was scheduled for his regular Sunday broadcast of Talk to the People, a weekly radio show he held on WNYC. At one point in the show, he encouraged his listeners to gather their children around the radio, and commenced to reading that day’s “Dick Tracy” comic from the Sunday Daily News. With obvious relish, the mayor described the action in the panels, impersonated the voices of various characters, and reminded listeners of the plot that had led up to that moment. At the end of each strip, he would explicate the moral of that week’s adventure to his young listeners.

(In the above clip from the next week, the moral is described in no uncertain terms: “Say children, what does it all mean? It means that dirty money never brings any luck! No, dirty money always brings sorrow and sadness and misery and disgrace.”)

He also promised that he would read the Sunday comics on the air every Sunday as long as the strike continued, and that someone from WNYC would read the dailies every day. The next Sunday, when he came in to broadcast, there were camera crews there to record his reading. The story took on a life nationally. And it became one of the things La Guardia was best remembered for.

Such a move by a major politician today would smack of a paternalism and pandering that would make cynical observers tear him apart. But in 1945, La Guardia reading the comics over the radio really seems to have been seen fondly by a great number of people.

Part of this was likely La Guardia’s personality– he possessed a gentleness, kindness, and an air of genuine benevolence that was a huge change from the last multiple-term mayor in New York, the slick and corrupt “Beau James” Walker. He was a genuine uniter, running in opposition to machine party politics, and seemed to many to have the commonwheal of the city in mind.

He didn’t lash out against the strikers or against the newspapers– he just expressed a concern that the children shouldn’t have to go without their comics just because of “a squabble among grown-ups.”

I genuinely do believe that La Guardia thought that this might just be a nice thing to do– I don’t believe it was necessarily a cynical or calculated move. But I do think that there is one part of this story that needs to be read with a skeptical eye.

I don’t think he was doing this simply “for the children.” I think that reading the comics was targeted at adults as well.

By all accounts, La Guardia read and enjoyed the comics himself. Born in New York in 1882, he was a member of the first generation to grow up with comics in the newspaper. (Although he was old enough to be working by the time comics started appearing in New York papers, in his early teens.)

While the reputation of comics as a medium for children had fully developed by midcentury, adults actively read and discussed the events in the daily comics page. Based on research conducted around the same time, sociologist and media theorist Leo Bogart argued that newspaper comics were important to working-class urban readers because they provided noncontroversial (but still debatable) subjects of conversation in situations of urban semi-anonymity. You might not want to talk to the guy on the bar stool next to you about religion or politics, but you could debate Dick Tracy with him.

By reading the comics, he was actually not just providing entertainment for the children of his constituents. La Guardia was finding a way to insert himself into the everyday street-corner conversations of millions of New Yorkers. I would argue that this, just as much as appealing to the children, was key to why this was such a defining moment for the memory of La Guardia’s career. He had understood the social function of comics to its adult readers, and had joined in that discussion. It’s the mark of a true populist– to actually understand what’s important to people, even the stuff they wouldn’t normally admit to.

Interestingly, while this event has faded somewhat from the public memory, and more people know La Guardia as an airport than as a politician, the recording of La Guardia reading the comics has taken on a strange and wonderful second life: the “what does it all mean?” that can be found at approximately 1:27 in the video above has become one of the most widely-used and best-known non-musical samples in hip-hop.


This Just In: Warner Music Group Lacks Sense of Irony, Common Sense

Ever since Warner Music Group pitched a hissy fit over copyright infringement on Youtube, finally reaching “a new and expanded agreement” with Youtube’s parent company, Google, it has been by far the most aggressive about protecting copyright claims on that sight– often flagrantly disregarding fair use.

I have to say that personally, I don’t see how a sixteen year old kid playing a Prince song on his ukulele and sharing it with friends over YouTube in any way threatens either Mr. Nelson’s or WMG’s intellectual property or record sales. Most of these claims are against the SPIRIT of copyright law– as it is outlined in Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the Constitution– if not the letter of the law. But the letter of the law is on their side, at least in those cases. Less so with other claims that fall very solidly under fair use protection.

And then there’s the claims that show not just that WMG is tone-deaf when it comes to the Constitution, but to basic principles of irony, like when a copyright claim on a small clip of music was used to silence a video of fair-use advocate and lawyer Larry Lessig. These are the transgressions that really point to the cluelessness of large groups of people following bureaucratic dictate with no larger guiding principle than profit.

I’ve gone on this little rant because I’ve finally gotten my first copyright complaint on YouTube.

Almost four years ago, I created the below video for a class project. I was trying to familiarize myself with basic editing programs, and to create a little video about US Labor History, with a slightly IWW sympathy.

I chose Billy Bragg’s rendition of The Internationale for several reasons. The song itself was a natural choice for a video on Labor History and looking at radicalism within the producing classes. Bragg’s version was in English, sung more like a folk song than an opera, and his revised lyrics emphasize a humanistic syndicalism that I feel represents some of the best aspects of American Labor in the periods between the Civil War and WWII.

The song is very much in the public domain here in the US– though apparently not in France. I found Billy Bragg’s version on a website of public domain music, and I’ll admit, I didn’t do my full due diligence, but as this was just a class project, I felt it was sufficient to do a bit. Finding it on that site, and then tracking down that the original version was recorded by Bragg on his Utility Records label, I felt safe. Even if the strictly educational purpose of the video– created for a class as a primative attempt at digital pedagogy– didn’t qualify my use as fair use, and even if it wasn’t viewed– as I feel it could be– as protected political speech… I just figured that, as the copyright holder, Billy Bragg wasn’t going to go after me for making a rather lefty student project about labor history.

But it turns out that Electra re-issued the album that this appeared on, and since Warner bought Electra in 1970, yes, WMG may indeed have some sort of claim on the music. I don’t have the particulars, and it depends on the nature of the reissue contracts, etc., but yes, they may have some claim.

And yes, nearly four years and nearly four thousand YouTube views later, they may well be within their rights to give me a copyright warning. Although given their scattershot approach, I’d really love the right to ask them to show me the paperwork before I believe it.

And I’m lucky, I guess. My video hasn’t been silenced or taken down. I just got off with a warning. As the little automated copyright imp inside of Youtube tells me, “No action is required on your part. Your video is still available worldwide. In some cases ads may appear next to your video.”

But that’s when the second shoe falls, irony-wise. Yes, WMG is challenging my right to use a piece of music that is really the property of a body of people who don’t believe in corporate personhood or private property. Yes, they are saying that they are the corporate owners and protectors of a song that features the lyrics:

When we fight, provoked by their aggression,
Let us be inspired by life and love.
For though they offer us concessions,
Change will not come from above!

…But I expect this sort of tone-deafness to irony. What shocks and delights me, however, is the idea of ads appearing next to my little video about the resistance and dignity of exploited workers. I wonder what products they might use to subsidize my use and pay off WMG for my use of the song. Because no matter what it is, there’s a good chance that it’ll be a product that is producing an unsafe product, or outsourcing American jobs to countries with fewer worker protections, or using sweatshop labor to keep prices low.

And I think, yeah– I wouldn’t mind having these images, this music, used next to such an ad. At all. Maybe it’ll make people think about where their Nikes or their Chinese-built electronics come from. Maybe this ad placement will actually, despite the intentions of the corporations involved, raise consciousness a little tiny bit about the machine of production in an international economy.

Or maybe they’ll eventually silence it, and I’ll just have to upload it again with a crappy MIDI file of the song.

ETA: Apparently, YouTube has silenced yet another Lessig video.

Good to know you’re not alone.


Ska, Wikipedia, and Memory

Back in high school, in the mid-nineties, I had a real fascination with ska. The third wave of ska had hit the Midwest hard around 1994, which coincided nicely with my friends starting to have cars.

My friend Max and I would sit in his car during lunch, listening to his mix tapes of eighties Specials records, sixties Jamaican ska, and contemporary local bands that played punk-influenced ska-core. On weekends we went to all ages shows in weird little ad hoc venues, in fraternal lodges and parks and people’s basements. The places where music scenes are made when a majority of the fans are under eighteen.

Dance the skaFast forward a year. I was now in college. I was living in rural Western Massachusetts, which meant a lot less going to shows, but I was alright with that because, other than the Allstonians, I thought all the bands out of the Boston ska scene sucked. Operation Ivy were still my favorite band, even if I’d been a little disappointed by the last Rancid album. I had a twenty page paper to write for my History of Jazz class. The professor had been open to talking about the impact of jazz on R&B and other popular forms, and said I could write my term paper on the history of ska. I was psyched.


When I started to do my research, I discovered that there was very, very little written on the topic, especially very little written by anyone who could be considered a legitimate scholarly source. This was 1995 or 1996, and I don’t think I’d ever even heard of a scholarly database. In a fit of desperation, I fired up my computer’s modem and dialed the college’s server computer, Plato. Once connected to Plato, I was able to telnet to the world wide web.

I’m pretty sure that this was the first time it had even occurred to me to do research on the web. The Internet was a place for hobbies, extracurricular stuff. Fansites and emails and ASCII art. That’s all I knew of the Internet.

But I hoped that maybe, just maybe, one of those ska fansites might help me find a lead on some sort of source. I was getting desperate.

It turned out to be a fortuitous thing, though. On one ska fansite, I learned that one of the guys from Moon Ska Records, my absolute favorite ska lable, had actually done a Masters thesis on the evolution of ska. (I’m pretty sure it was Robert “Bucket” Hingley of the Toasters, but almost fifteen years later, I’m just not sure.) He’d even done oral histories with members of the Skatalites and other seminal bands. I arranged a phone interview with him and bought a device that let me record the interview on a boombox. He was awesome and friendly, recommending books and repeating stories he’d heard when he was doing the oral histories. It was a great discussion, and a great resource for my paper.

My roommate at the time had a five-disc CD changer. As I was writing the paper, I loaded it up with ska CDs, to get myself in the proper mood. I had the changer set to shuffle from track to track. I hadn’t changed one disc, however, which was a Louis Jordan CD I’d recently purchased. As one sixties ska piece ended, the CD player switched over to a track on the Louis Jordan CD. I wish I could say I remembered which one. But whichever song it was, I suddenly heard the same sychopation, the accented off-beat that came to define ska, and then rocksteady and reggae after it.

Louis JordanI could hardly believe my ears. This was, to me at the moment, like finding the ur-text of ska. All the sources that I had found agreed that fifties R&B from the States had found their way to Jamaica via both radio and US servicemen who would come through, leading some music dealers create a sideline going up to Florida, purchasing singles, and importing them to Jamaica. But all of the sources were tight-lipped about specifics. What were people listening to? Which musicians would have been more influential or popular? Nobody really said.

But now I had an answer: Louis Jordan. My discussion of the ska-like qualities of two different songs of this Jordan compilation CD became a page of my paper, and the most truly original material in it.

Fast forward again, this time about ten years later. I’m back in school, working on a PhD in History. One of the first assignments in my Digital History class is to make an addition or alteration to a Wikipedia page.

Now, I’d been using Wikipedia for a while, by that point. And I’d always had a rule for myself to make alterations whenever I saw inaccuracies. However, coming across an inaccurate statement and fixing it is far easier than coming up with something that’s not already thoroughly documented on Wikipedia.

On top of that, so many of my interests, so many of the things that I knew a lot about– comics, Simpsons episodes, music– were things that millions of fans had encyclopedic knowledge of, knowledge that had already been absorbed by the hive-mind of Wikipedia.

I wasn’t in the mood to do research just for a Wikipedia edit that I would be doing primarily to prove that I knew how to do Wikipedia edits. But then, scouring my brain for something that I might know a lot about but others might not, I remembered my ska paper from college. And I remembered all the fundamental misunderstandings I’d encountered of the music from other fans back when it was big– particularly one argument with a kid who swore up and down that ska was a fusion of polka and reggae.

So I went to the ska page, and added a bunch of edits of things that came to mind while reading the article. And then, almost as an afterthought, I thought of my observation about Louis Jordan, and added that— something that I was pretty sure was technically a violation of Wikipedia’s ban on original research. The rest of the stuff I’d added, I knew could be backed up with outside sources. The connection to Louis Jordan was just something I’d noticed.

Over the last three years, I’ve checked up on Wikipedia’s ska page from time to time. I guess there’s a sense of stewardship, but also just out of perverse curiosity at whether my edits have stood the test of time. For the most part, they have. Most of what I wrote has stayed on the page over three years. Which surprises me. And I always note with a little glee that nobody’s called me out on the Louis Jordan reference.

The other day, though– Wikipedia managed to thoroughly shock me. Not only is my Louis Jordan reference not flagged as original research– it turns out I’m not the only person who made the connection! Looking at the most current version, you’ll see that some sharp-eyed Wikipedian has added a footnote.

Wayne Chen, in his 1998 book Reggae Routes: The Story of Jamaican Music, quotes an interview with Alton Ellis, wherein Ellis confirms that musicians emulating American jump blues– and Jordan specifically– became some of the same musicians that would come to create ska. The Wikipedia footnote even links to the page that the mention is made, over on Google Books.

It’s kind of amazing, having an observation I made in 1995 or 1996 be backed up by a 1998 book in 2009. It’s one of the really fun things about the internet– it allows us to sort of crowdsource memory. Connections can be made in this organic fashion, and we can illuminate stranger’s memories for them. The addition of that footnote actually pushed me through a nostalgic little journey, and made me dig up a couple of my old ska CDs that I haven’t listened to in ten years.

Whoever made that Wikipedia edit, thanks for the memories.


(Semi-)Weekly Ukulele Post

I love ukulele orchestras.

The sound of a single uke can be sublimely beautiful or twee and plinking, it’s much more versatile than people give it credit for being. (It seems that Jake Shimabukuro’s helping to change that somewhat, although I still love the uke primarily as a rhythm instrument.)

The sound of a single uke can evoke a lot, and be pretty amazing. But there’s nothing in the world quite like the sound of, say, fifty ukuleles, playing as one. The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain are becoming minor Youtube celebrities, and I can see why. They’re a little stiff and droll for me, though. I have to say, I prefer the raw fun of The Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra— who can be heard here in a rousing rendition of Outcast’s “Hey Ya.”

Well, a band that’s already been in pretty frequent rotation on my iTunes just came out with a new song featuring a ukulele orchestra. Needless to say, I’m jazzed.

The band is the Bastard Fairies, a group I often explain to my friends as “LA’s answer to the Dresden Dolls.” Like the Dresden Dolls, they’re a male-female two-piece, heavy on the theatricality, childlike music, and dark themes. But where Amanda Palmer is a bit of the waifish Victorian china doll, the Bastard Fairies’ singer, Yellow Thunder Woman, is the Native American answer to Betty Page. Where the Dolls seem to draw inspiration from Weimar Republic Caberets, the Fairies prefer punk rock, regressed to childhood. Nursery rhymes about sex, death, and beer.

What drew my attention to the Bastard Fairies wasn’t actually their music– it was their delivery system. These guys were ahead of Chris Anderson in the belief that the future of business is free.

The then-unsigned band elected to make their excellent debut album, Momento Mori, freely available for download, and then look for someone to distribute them. A lot of people, myself included, downloaded the album out of sheer curiosity. The album got picked up by Adrenaline Music, the download page went away, and the CD was released with additional tracks. It can be even be purchased now on Amazon. Go pick up a copy– it’s worth it.

Anyway, I’ve been listening a lot to this new uke orchestra Bastard Fairies track.

Allow me to introduce the Bastard Fairies’ cover of Melanie Safka’s “Brand New Key”, featuring the Uncle Lincoln Ukulele Club:


The Bastard Fairies’ Website
The Bastard Fairies’ Myspace
The Bastard Fairies on



They don’t love you like I love you."

–"Maps," by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

The song never really made sense to me, but it’s incredibly catchy.

I don’t have anything particularly insightful to say about this week’s readings.  They were all solid, interesting, and exciting.  I have no criticisms.

Moreover, this topic has got me freshly re-excited about the whole concept of digital history– my last couple weeks have been rough, with APIs and Databases kicking me into frightened submissions. 

But maps?  Yeah, I get excited about maps anyway.  And the whole concept of doing historical geography on computers, making it interactive, WOW.  That’s really exciting to me.  It’s actually what made me warm up to the concept of this school’s technology requirement.  I love the idea of interactive maps, maps that are deep in their knowledge, multi-layered or multiform.  Interactive maps would refute Karen O’s assertion that "Maps……. wait."  (He said, weakly justifying the quote at the beginning of the article.)

Since I’ve gotten all geeky drooling fanboy about the subject, it’s a little hard to be objective about the articles.  Several of them were dull, but they really fun to think away from, if that makes sense…?  I got distracted by my own thoughts of what could be done.

So instead of trying to seriously tackle these articles, let me share a fantasy project.

I would love to see (or work on, if I someday develop the knowhow) a web companion to Boston: A Topographical History.  It’s a book I already love, and a fascinating topic. You see, a lot of what is now Boston was, at the time of first contact, under water.  Over time, damming and landfill changed that.  They chopped the tops off of several hills, and eliminated several others, to produce a larger, but flatter, Boston.  This is something that you can talk about in a book until you’re (metaphorically) blue in the face, but you can’t quite convey it as well as you could with an interactive map.

Imagine an interactive map, where you can adjust the time to actually watch the land being created, the topography flattening out, the changes in the population in different areas over time, as the new land allows for new class-based segregation.  Imagine being able to select points of interest on this map, and see a picture from that time of that place.

I know how these things go, one historian’s gold is another’s reason to take a nap, but in my mind, the results would be (to use another pop culture quote) "Freakin’ awesome," as Peter Griffin once put it.