Customer complains about iTunes DRM, gets refund

When Anthony Marrian purchased the comprehensive Bob Dylan “digital box” from Apple’s iTunes music store, which retails for a not insignificant £169.99, he was looking forward to playing it both at home and when out and about with his iRiver H340 music player. He was disappointed to discover that the files were “not recognized” by his player and complained to Apple.

I told them that at no point during the sales process was there any indication that the download would only work on an iPod. They replied that all their sales were non-refundable.

He persisted.

This resulted in “My name is Patrick and I will be assisting you. I understand that you are unhappy about not getting a refund for your Bob Dylan album. I know that can be frustrating”. Patrick then invited me to leave feedback on a web page which states “Comments will be read but not replied to”. After I’d suggested to Patrick that leaving additional feedback was likely to be a waste of time given that he had already replied to the only feedback I wished to leave, I got an email from Sam who said that in this one, exceptional, case s/he was prepared to refund me.

Kudos to Apple for the refund, which surprises me. I doubt it was legally required, since the iTunes small print includes all sorts of restrictions. But Marrian’s experience illustrates the DRM problem: many customers of online music stores have an expectation that they can make full personal use of what they buy, when the reality is different.

Even without the DRM Marrian would have problems, since the iRiver device does not support the AAC codec. He could have burned the tracks to CD and ripped them back as MP3 (with loss of quality); or he could have used unauthorised DRM-stripping software to remove the DRM and then converted them using a utility, again with loss of quality. Apparently Apple’s customer service folk did not propose either solution, and I agree with them: if you spend £169.99 on music you don’t expect to have to jump through hoops to play it.

The situation seems almost hopeless. If Microsoft prosper with Zune, then the world gets yet another lock-in DRM scheme to contend with; yet even that may be better for the consumer than a continuing lack of effective competition for iTunes/iPod.

The irony is that pirates who freely exchange copyright MP3 or even non-lossy Flac music files are getting a better product than the law abiding folk who are willing to buy legal downloads.

The best hope is that either anti-trust regulators like the Norwegian Consumer Ombudsman force Apple and others to give consumers a better deal; or that potential customers like Anthony Marrian simply refuse to buy on the terms currently offered.

I’m also in the latter camp. In fact, the latest iTunes music store appears to be blocked by my firewall; I get this:

I’m in no hurry to get it fixed.

Update

Frank Shaw says  phones will beat the iPod. Maybe. Three things though:

1. We haven’t seen the Apple phone yet.

2. The telecom companies may have the hardware, but have not yet matched the iTunes music store to win download purchases.

3. Integration. Apple does a great job of integrating internet store/PC or Mac/iPod; and is bringing the home TV into the loop as well. Oh yes, and all those iPod docks fitted in cars these days. To win you need to match the whole ecosystem, not just a part.

 

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14 comments to Customer complains about iTunes DRM, gets refund

  • Ralph

    Mayhaps Anthony is just too damn stupid to be allowed to operate any MP3 player.

    He subscribes to iTunes -and isn’t aware that it’s exclusively an iPod thing?!? Please.

    Additionally, if he’s too lazy to figure out how to get around Apple’s wimpy DRM, he should stick with LPs.

    It’s much more likely that he was edging for a fight -and didn’t get the satisfaction.

  • Tim

    I’m not sure. Some people imagine they are just buying music. It’s only when they hit a problem that they realise there are issues with codecs and DRM.

  • Peter

    “He could have burned the tracks to CD and ripped them back as MP3 (with loss of quality)”

    Okay, I’m a bit lost here.

    Are you saying that if Apple had sold him MP3 files he wouldn’t have a loss in quality? Are you saying that AAC has better quality than MP3?

    Assuming you are, then the fault clearly lies with iRiver for not supporting the higher-quality AAC, n’est-ce pas?

    One of the interesting parts of the debate on “fair use”, as I see it, is the issue of convenience. At least in regards to music, Apple allows you to burn CDs with music purchased from the iTunes Store. From there, you can do whatever you want with it. That sounds like fair use to me.

    “But it’s inconvenient.” Well, yes, it is. Nobody ever said fair use has to be convenient–merely available.

  • Al

    The telecoms may take over but if their music does not play on iPods they’re going to have to give out a lot of refunds.

  • Myles

    Yes, we have seen the Apple/Motorola phone. Most pundits, like Frank Shaw, are in denial.

  • Tim

    Are you saying that if Apple had sold him MP3 files he wouldn’t have a loss in quality? Are you saying that AAC has better quality than MP3?

    Ideally, purchasers should get a choice of codecs and bitrates; or a non-lossy codec that they can convert to any other codec at optimal quality. However you look at it, lossy AAC converted to lossy MP3 is sub-optimal.

    Assuming you are, then the fault clearly lies with iRiver for not supporting the higher-quality AAC, n’est-ce pas?

    Why shouldn’t the purchaser have a choice? The iRiver supports MP3; Ogg Vorbis; uncompressed WAV; MP3 at 256kbs; its users shouldn’t have to put up with double-converted MP3s.

    Nobody ever said fair use has to be convenient–merely available.

    Why shouldn’t it be convenient? With all the advances in audio technology, the user should be getting a better experience, not a worse one – and without being tied to a single vendor.

  • doug

    Tim asks why shouldn’t it be convenient and I don’t know if he understands how important of a question that really is.

    Everyone who hates DRM always points back to how they could copy from a record to a tape (through which you do lose quality) so fair use says they should be able to copy from CD to MP3 or what ever. But the issue really is convenience. The record labels were not afraid of some guy who recorded tapes from records and shared the tapes with 5 friends as they knew that those friends might go out and buy other albums from that group later. This is a classic argument from the DRM haters. But! Remember, the guy who copied his records, spent an hour to copy the record to tape the first time and then up to an hour each for each of the other copies (fast dubbing tapes aside, which also degrade sound quality). Now, in a matter of minutes you can rip a full cd and in only a couple minutes each you can burn copies. So you might give out 30 copies instead of 5. Worse yet, you can email them to 30 friends who can email them to 30 friends with virtually 0 time spent.
    So where is the incentive to just go buy that next disk. You tell your friend, to send over the next album when he gets it, or you buy the next album and return the favor by ripping it for your friends. It really is all about convenience and fair use does not guarantee anything about convenience.

    As to what a company “Should do” with regard to offering multiple codecs and bitrates, I guess I could agree but you should expect to pay for it. Bandwidth is not free, nor is transcoding. So, maybe 128K AAC files are $.99 but uncompressed files are $3.00 and files transcoded to your choice beyond AAC are $1.50. But all would be DRM encoded to make sure you don’t just share the files with everyone.

    DRM is here to stay folks. Get over it.

    Good for Apple in making an exception, but the buyer should have known.

  • Tim

    Thanks for your comments Doug.

    The record labels were not afraid of some guy who recorded tapes from records

    Yes they were. I have LPs with “home taping is killing music” plastered all over them.

    As to what a company “Should do” with regard to offering multiple codecs and bitrates, I guess I could agree but you should expect to pay for it.

    I agree, though not with your proposed prices :-)

    DRM is here to stay folks. Get over it.

    It is here to stay; though its hard to envisage much reduction in piracy while the CDs and the analog hole exist.

    I am not against DRM; I am against vendor lock-in. Apple should open up its DRM to others on fair terms; or else the industry should agree a common standard.

    Eventually I reckon this misleading notion of “owning” music will disappear and we will buy subscriptions which really makes more sense in the digital age.

  • I don’t think I’m in denial :) I’m just thinking about the explosion of smart music phones and the fact that pretty much everyone has a phone; when it’s easy to get music on the phone, why carry two devices? This is not a short term thing — the ipod is not going away anytime soon — but the trend looks pretty clear.

  • Just wait until all those iTunes users buy new computers for Windows Vista. That’s sure to be a slap in the face. Only then will they realize that they’ve been cheated out of their money.

  • I just got my 2000t and all of my songs are skipping in iTunes, and I cant figure out why. If someone could help me out and tell me how to fix this I would really appreciate it because its driving me crazy. Thanks for the replys.

  • I’m happy with my iTunes cause I’ve got this little prog little prog removing DRM easily!

  • Crappy DRM should be removed!
    I’ve been using SoundTaxi for 3-4 months and trust it.
    SoundTaxi supports WMP 11 fine and any iTunes updates too. It’s also extremely easy to use and 12x fast!
    http://www.soundtaxi.info/
    Sure, their team’s worthy of appreciation just for coming up with a program that opposes the Itunes .M4p files and the rest of the corrupt DRM-fed industry.

  • Lee

    Ralph, real audiophiles realise that LP’s are the best quality consumer quality available. Use it as an insult only to show yourself up – boy.