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Robbed at Gunpoint #10: What If They Steal Your Mp3s?

When I filed my insurance claim, my first thought was, “I wish I could file a claim for the thousands of mp3s I lost too.”

I wasn’t that worried really. I had lost 2 40 gig hard drive mp3 players. The two players had about 50-55 gigs of mp3s (that’s about 1300 mp3s). Although I used both machines occasionally for audio recording, I’m happy to report that all of the original recordings had already been transferred to my PC.
Here’s how things broke down on my 2 40 gig iriver mp3 players:

  • about 2 or 3 gigs were commercial songs I downloaded (illegally) through p2p networks in 2001.
  • another 5-10 gigs consisted of  commercial music from Asia I downloaded through this incredible (and  illegal) music service called Audiogalaxy (now defunct). These are mp3s I would have never found in any other way, music totally unavailable in the US.
  • about 10 gigs came from mp3 scraping program called Irate Radio. I had interviewed the lead developer two years ago, and this was one of the first programs that allowed people to download massive amounts of music legally.
  • about 10 gigs of stuff I downloaded by hand. Came from dmusic, iuma.com, webjay.org, chron.com, amazon.com. I spent a long time downloading these things.
  • 4.3 gigs of mp3s from a legal torrent of SXSW music from musicians performing at the event.
  • about 12 gigs worth of creative commons stuff (maybe as much as 15). Mostly electronic stuff, but also a lot of classic blues/fiddle music that apparently archive.org is distributing. A lot came from legaltorrents.com too.
  • 7-9 gigs of mp3s I burned from CDs. About half of them came from CD’s I owned, while the other half came from CDs I checked out of the library (I’ve recently been on a jazz kick–btw, you really need to check out Fats Waller, Art Pepper and Herbie Hancock).
  • special mp3s I paid for on sites by individual artists. Namely Kristin Hersch, Trancecontrol, Serena Matthews and maybe one or two others.

Out of them all, I will miss the SXSW torrent mp3s the most (because there’s no way of recovering them, aside from running into someone who downloaded the same torrent file). (Update: Apparently the torrents are still available!)Also, I am really angry at losing the files I downloaded by hand, although I might have copies elsewhere on an old server. I think the Bollywood/Asian stuff is stored safely somewhere, and I bookmarked the archive.org files in two different ways (here’s one of them). I’m not sure that I’ll be able to obtain the files from individual artists I bought mp3 files for (although these guys might cut me a break).

I can easily redownload the mp3s from the Houston Chronicle site, but it would be a royal pain; while the Chronicle has been gracious enough to distribute these files for free (all fantastic!), chron.com hasn’t really made it easy or convenient to download. You still have to do it by hand (I had seriously contemplated trying to repackage these files into a torrent file–assuming I could obtain the right permissions).

Right now, we have a power struggle going on between content supported by ads and commercial mp3 hosting services. Myspace, dmusic, amazon.com etc. do a great job of distributing content by artists for free. On the other hand, their revenue comes from advertising eyeballs, so it’s in their best interest to make the process of downloading an mp3 as long and tedious as possible. I complain, but without this miniscule revenue stream, perhaps music hosting services wouldn’t survive at all. Frankly, aside from archive.org and ourmedia.org (which have ftp/torrent access), not a lot of options exist for downloading massive amounts of mp3s legally and safely.

Have I left out anything? Oh, yes, iTunes, yahoo, walmart, the “minor players.” As a matter of principle, I’ve been avoiding them, although I don’t reject them out of hand (as long as their DRM framework doesn’t mess with my CC/free/legal mp3s).

But what happens if my mp3 player (or my laptop) is stolen? Will any of these companies compensate you for your loss? In other words, are you allowed to download the mp3 files only one time, or do you have the ability to access/download them as long as you want?

For iTunes, the answer is no. The onus is on you to make backups of your music files you paid for. On the other hand, you can import these backed up files onto any system that is authenticated for your use. And you can “de-authenticate” the stolen devices for use. (Read more information here and here ).

That sounds like a fair-enough solution. But is this the best way really? The problem is you essentially need to keep 3 copies of all of your files (one on your PC, one on your ipod, and one on a data DVD). Chances are, your data DVD won’t be up-to-date, although that will definitely minimize the loss.

Even with a reliable backup solution, you could still lose lots of files (and in a catastrophic event like a fire or flood, you wouldn’t have any backups). What if itunes maintained a central authentication server? Merely by changing your password, you could de-authenticate a device easily and plus have the ability to access any/all files you already paid for. Yes, there are offline scenarios and technical problems to deal with, but they could be worked around somehow. Really, we only need the files to exist on a centralized data locker for downloading, and transfer would be painless.

From Apple’s point of view, making an authentication server would mean more hassles and possible breakins. On the other hand, it would offer consumers an “insurance policy” against theft and upgrades. I’d certainly appreciate the peace of mind of knowing that things I bought would continue to be available simply by logging in. When high-speed internet becomes ubiquitious, maybe the streaming model would become fashionable again. Maybe not for portable devices (although you never know!), but why should you need to keep anything locally anymore? The only issue Apple needs to address would be concurrent usage on more than one machine, and guess what–the software world has already solved that problem.

For the individual collector of independent music, the biggest challenge isn’t authentication; it’s simply remembering what you downloaded (and finding time to do it again). To tell the truth, I simply can’t remember what I used to have on those iriver players.

This reminds me of a dream related to me by a graduate student attending school in California. He made a trip from Texas to California in a car loaded with books. When staying overnight at a motel on the way, he dreamed about his car being robbed. In the dream he came out to his car and found his books completely gone (stolen!) and replaced with a different cache of books (put there presumably by the robber). My friend, though disappointed, started thumbing through the new titles, finding them mostly uninteresting, though some were esoteric enough to whet his curiosity.

You lose some, you win some. When I buy a new mp3 player, I probably will be so busy finding new stuff that I will hardly think about my losses. Music is everywhere (and so are podcasts, apparently). Losing a few thousand music files won’t change my love for music or prevent future enjoyment. Ideally individuals should not need to worry about getting mp3 files stolen. This is a technical problem which is easily solvable (and in a few years, it will be). But sometimes it helps to start over from scratch without being bogged down by the burdens of a music/movie collection. One needs to remember that in a time before mp3s (or even recordings), people’s tastes in music were just as adventurous, just as passionate.

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