Wal-Mart changes its mind, leaves existing DRM servers up

In what can only be described as another "damned if you do, damned if you don't" scenario, faced with the option of thousands of disgruntled customers, Wal-Mart is informing them it's decided to leave its online DRM servers running.

According to letters received by customers and reprinted today by multiple sources -- among them Boing Boing's Cory Doctorow -- the nation's largest retailer is telling them that music they downloaded from the Wal-Mart online music store can continue to be played indefinitely. It has apparently reversed its decision of last week, and while still moving forward toward a DRM-free model for future music downloads, will leave its servers online to support the DRM schemes in existing downloads.

"What this means to you is that our existing service continues and there is no action required on your part," Wal-Mart's letter to customers reads. "Our customer service team will continue to assist with DRM issues for protected windows media audio (WMA) files purchased from Walmart.com."

The letter goes on to repeat its advisory that customers back up their music to "recordable audio CDs," although those CDs may only be played in personal computers, not from CD audio consoles. Had last week's decision gone into effect, tracks downloaded prior to yesterday may only have been playable on the PCs from which they were downloaded, unless customers backed up those songs onto non-portable CDs -- again, prior to yesterday.

Earlier, the retailer was the subject of criticism for having stuck with a DRM-based business model in the first place, but was praised in August 2007 for announcing its pending move to DRM-free MP3 downloads, abandoning Windows Media and the WMA v9 DRM scheme. Last week, it was criticized for having the gall to unplug its DRM servers during its move to the DRM-free model it believed its customers wanted.

Today, ironically, commenters on many digital audio and tech news blogs bashed Wal-Mart again ("Serves them right," said one commenter to AfterDawn.com) for finding itself stuck supporting a technology that nobody wants; while at the same time, blog posts themselves are characterizing Wal-Mart's reversal of its decision as a win for consumers.

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