iTunes hides account details in DRM-free downloads

iTunes logoUsers who purchase DRM-free tracks from Apple’s iTunes Plus store and then ‘accidently’ share those files with friends or via peer-to-peer networks, maybe in for a shock. Arstechnica is reporting that user account details (in form of full name and email address) are stored inside every track sold, making it possible to trace any copies back to the original purchaser — although it’s unlikely that such evidence would stand up in court, as in theory the data could be spoofed. So why is Apple doing this? The obvious answer is to make people think twice before sharing their music, and yet the company doesn’t seem to be informing customers that their details are embedded in the tracks they’ve bought.

Arstechnica suggest that another possible reason is that the company is helping the recording industry monitor so-called ‘casual’ piracy:

That said, it would be trivial for iTunes to report back to Apple, indicating that “Joe User” has M4As on this hard drive belonging to “Jane Userette,” or even “two other users.” This is not to say that Apple is going to get into the copyright enforcement business. What Apple and indeed the record labels want to watch closely is: will one user buy music for his five close friends?

Rather than being concerned with going after individual users who infringe copyright, it could be that the company wants to aggregate such data in order to analyze how much sharing of paid-for DRM-free music, actually takes place.

Either way, Apple should better inform customers of this practice, and also what they plan to use this hidden data for. It’s also worth remembering that it’s quite common for peer-to-peer file-sharing applications to ‘share’ a user’s music folder by default — so take note.

last100 is edited by Steve O'Hear. Aside from founding last100, Steve is co-founder and CEO of Beepl and a freelance journalist who has written for numerous publications, including TechCrunch, The Guardian, ZDNet, ReadWriteWeb and Macworld, and also wrote and directed the Silicon Valley documentary, In Search of the Valley. See his full profile and disclosure of his industry affiliations.

6 Responses to “iTunes hides account details in DRM-free downloads”

  1. […] Source:last100 Users who purchase DRM-free tracks from Apple’s iTunes Plus store and then ‘accidently’ share those files with friends or via peer-to-peer networks, may be in for a shock. Arstechnica is reporting that user accounts details (in form of full name and email address) are stored inside every track sold, making it possible to trace […] Share and Enjoy: These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages. […]

  2. Decklane says:

    I think ‘watermarking’ is a fine alternative to using DRM. However paying more the content and then not being given all the facts about how they could be monitoring me makes me squirm like crazy as a consumer. When will they treat the customers with the same amount of respect that they expect from them.

  3. lIHd says:

    Including personal information in a music file, particularly if it is used to analyze data or enforcement copyright, is a form of DRM i.e using technological measures to manage (by tracking user’s) digital rights.

    It would appear that apple is being a tad disingenuous in claiming that their music is DRM free.

  4. Steve O'Hear (editor) says:

    @Decklane

    I agree that it’s wrong to charge more for DRM-free music, and also wrong not to tell customers that there is hidden data in the file.

    @lIHd

    I still wouldn’t call it DRM because it’s not managing your rights using technology. It doesn’t stop you doing anything legal e.g. making a backup, or converting to use on different devices. It just makes copies tracable — which of course you *should* be told about.

  5. lIHd says:

    When I think of DRM I usually think of it as being made up of two components, the policy part (the rules), that are set up to define what rights are being managed, and the technical measures that are used to implement the policy.

    In this case the policy is to make the music files uniquely identifiable to users so that the music can be traced back to the individual who originally purchased the file (and who potentially breached the copyright holders rights when they shared it). And the technical measure taken is the insertion of a unique identifier into that file.

    Arguably, Apple’s approach to including private information in those files could be interpreted as DRM, it’s not the same type of DRM implemented in systems like CSS or AACS, but I would argue that it still could be defined as DRM (if someone, say a large media company, wanted to make that argument in court), and I wonder if any tools or measures taken to strip this information from those files would fall foul of the DMCA?

  6. Annoyed says:

    The sensationalism is killing me. How do they ‘Hide’ the account details? Right click and Get Info on any itunes purchased track and it gives you all of this information here in plain English. Its been this way since forever and has continued with iTunes +

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