Did you rip that off?

22 July 2003
5:07 PM

OK, I have to admit it: I'm angry. It's one thing to copy and innovate; it's another to just plain rip off. Today buy.com announced their new buymusic.com store. It's no more than Apple's iTunes Music Store for Windows. And what does buy add? Almost nothing.

Before we even enter the store, let's look at the ads. Buymusic's ads are a complete rip-off of Apple's—they use the same white background, people singing, and closeups of MP3 players. Apple is even references in one of the ads where a crewman smashes the electric guitar used to represent music on Apple's site. The two others show a myriad of people singing with their players, including an overweight woman bouncing to "Rapper's Delight" and an Amish man singing "Superfreak." The tagline: Now for the rest of us. Arguably, the commercials could be perceived as a little funny, but they're definitely not laugh-out-loud hilarious. They're cheap shots at awkward, everyday people singing. But you've got to advertise somehow, and using someone else's ads is cost efficient. On to the service itself.

Buymusic's apparant advantage is that is offers tracks "from 79¢" a song. Apple's prices are higher with every song at 99¢. How does this work out? I paid $1 for Uncle Kraker's Drift Away. It's 90¢ at buymusic. I could have saved 10¢, which would certainly add up over time. Is there any disadvantage to buymusic? In a word: yes.

Apple's DRM (digital rights management) system is called FairPlay and it is the same for every song you download. It allows you to copy your song to 3 computers, burn as many copies as you want, and transfer it to your iPod however many times you want. Buymusic.com is neither so generous nor so simple. Some tracks allow unlimited burning and unlimited transfers to your MP3 player. Most, however, have more restrictive rights. That Uncle Kracker track I bought? I can burn it 3 times and that's it. I've already burned that track 3 times in iTunes, and I've only had it for less than 2 months.

The most confusing part is that the rules are different for every song: Norah Jones's "Come Away With Me" can only be transferred to an MP3 player 3 times. Songs from Shania Twain's new CD can be burned and transferred an unlimited number of times, but can only be stored on 1 computer. Beyonce's new music can be stored on 3 computers, but can only be burned 5 times. I can only imagine scrolling through your music library, browsing to make a mix CD, and trying to decide which tracks you can still burn.

The unfortunate truth is that buymusic will still probably be popular, despite being inferior to Apple's offering of a few months ago. Apple's offering is not perfect, but the only way legitimate online music going to get better is with other companies innovating as well—not just mimicking. This copy is a far cry from the original.