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Chaku Uta Full and DRM

While a lot of tech analysts watch Apple’s upcoming announcement of a Motorola phone with a built-in iTunes client, allowing for mobile music downloads, KDDI’s AU already launched a similar concept on the Japanese market in November 2004: AU’s 36000-downloads-in-the-first-three-weeks Chaku Uta Full service. The service allows owners of an AU W22SA, W22H, W21CA or W21T mobile phone to purchase downloads of full songs and listen to them on their mobile phone through a special headset or built-in speakers. Format used is MPEG-4 aacPlus (also known as HE AAC), which allows for high quality sound at low bitrates; stores where you can buy Chaku Uta Full include Lmelo, Music.jp et al. Prices are between 210 and 420 Yen per song. Yes, that’s expensive.

However, here is the interesting part—and yep, I’m talking about the DRM.

Page 124 of the W22H manual tells us the device’s miniSD card is CPRM-compatible, meaning that the ways in which you can save certain types of content are constrained. Content with a copyright flag, such as Chaku Uta Full, can only be transfered to a certain encrypted folder on the miniSD card—this probably means you can’t transfer the Chaku Uta Full files you purchased to your computer nor play them on it. Furthermore, as the content in the miniSD card’s encrypted folder is somehow tied to the phone number of the phone it was purchased with, you can only transfer or play it with a phone with that very phone number. It thus becomes possible to transfer DRMed data from your old mobile phone to your new one, considering that you do not switch to another carrier and that you keep your number (= almost always more costly than getting a new number).

So, to summarize: KDDI has launched a quite expensive, but apparently successful service of high-quality and low-bandwidth music downloads that are heavily DRM encumbered, but can be transfered to another mobile phone in case you stick with your carrier and phone number (=expensive).

N.B.: I must say that I’m curious to see if it’s possible to encode your own MPEG-4 aacPlus files (e.g. with the Helix DNA Producer SDK and the AAC add-on package) and transfer them to your mobile phone. The guy in the AU shop told me it wasn’t possible, but I had the impression he didn’t really know what I was talking about; AU’s website and manuals don’t make me any wiser either. If it works, it might well undermine KDDI’s Chaku Uta Full business model. If anybody has a clue, please leave a comment.

Update: Slate has an excellent article on aacPlus.

Mobile content update: chaku-uta full soaring, mobile DTV launch next April

Some mobile content news – DRM in the air, of course.

Found via a comment by Gen Kanai on a Bubblegeneration post: “chaku-uta full” downloads have broken through the 10 million mark. That is amazing for an overpriced, heavily DRMed product. For those interested, here’s a link to previous chaku-uta full coverage.

So, what’s the next big thing after chaku-uta full? Yep, mobile digital TV. On April 1st, 2006, Japan’s broadcast industry will launch DTV broadcasts for mobile devices. Although the first DTV enabled cell phones probably won’t have recording functionality on board, it is to be expected next-gen models will (have to) be responsive to the copy-once or no-copy flag that comes bundled with the broadcast signal. Note: I’ve covered this before on my blog and in my Japan Media Review paper.

About Napster.jp and audio DRM

The nice thing about living in Tokyo is that, in order to be updated about all things tech, you just have to take the train. Napster Yesterday for instance, the Yamanote line train cars taught me that Napster (this one, not the legacy one) has opened a Japanese version of its online store in the beginning of October (totally missed that as I was in Belgium then). This is a noteworthy development, because of a number of reasons:

First of all, Napster.jp is the first flat rate all-you-can-download music service in Japan. And to be honest, the rate isn’t that bad: 1280¥/month is quite affordable. Of course, if you can live with the fact that, after a year and 15360¥ spent, you own exactly 0 songs…

Also important: Tower Records might be dead in the US, but as you see on the picture I took, it’s alive and well in Japan: “Napster x Tower Records,” reads the poster.

And of course, DRM ahoy! Needless to say, Napster files will not work on your iPod, Mac or the upcoming Zune. They will work on some (only some) mobile phones though. For instance, have a look at the Docomo x Music page and go to the “products” tab. If you hover over the phone images, you can see the supported “storage format” in the left sidebar — messy, to say the least. My favorite is the blue SH903i in the middle: Napster/WMA (Windows Media DRM), SD-Audio (SD-Audio DRM) and AAC (Chaku Uta Full DRM). That’s three completely different DRM formats for playing music on a small portable device — not to speak about the several interfaces for purchasing and managing music. Seems like the people preparing the SH903i manual also had a hard time explaining the differences, incompatibilities and restrictions — such a hard time, that they released three audio manuals: one explaining Napster To Go, one SD-Audio and another one WMA. Ouch.

Update 2006-10-27: I’m currently trying out the one week Napster trial and must say that I’m not very impressed. Choice is limited, and most Japanese songs are not a part of the all-you-can-download program, so you have to purchase them separately. I also have my doubts about the crappy Japanese interface, which seems to be rushed out in order to launch Napster.jp before the release of the (incompatible) Zune in the end of 2006.

Japanese mobile phones as iPod replacements?

Recently, a lot of Japanese mobile phones are sold as if they are iPod substitutes—that’s only true to a certain extent. It is indeed correct that you can use them for full song playback and, in case you’re an AU subscriber, also download songs via their Chaku Uta Full service. When we look at the audio formats supported however, the situation is less iPod like.

As I explained in a related entry of two weeks ago, Chaku Uta Full for instance, come in the MPEG-4 aacPlus format and, unlike iTunes downloads, they can’t really be moved around between devices, let alone you can burn them to CD. The mobile phones that support Chaku Uta Full also have no MP3 support. If you want to play your own songs on your mobile phone, you have no choice but to convert your them first to MPEG-4 aacPlus. According to this 2ch.net thread, the NeroWaveEditor payware can help with the job. Note: as Chaku Uta Full providers won’t like this very much, I can imagine future phones preventing you from uploading your own MPEG-4 aacPlus files.

The recently announced W31SA series then comes with SD-Audio support (not with MP3 support, as Gizmodo incorrectly writes). In case you want to put your own music on your mobile phone, you have to purchase the SD-Jukebox third-party software that wraps the songs in DRM, preventing you from transferring them to another computer than the one they came from.

A look at DoCoMo’s Music Porter reveals a similar setup. Format there is ATRAC3 and special software is needed for ripping CDs and transferring tracks—I don’t know about DRM here, though. OpenMG maybe?

These examples show that the current generation of Japanese mobile phones is still far from being an iPod replacement—instead, they let customers taste from the portable audio hype, while restricting the experience by means of DRM and non-standard audio formats. Curious how long it will last.

FFWD 2007

A quick look at the copyright related developments I see (or don’t see) happening in 2007. My predictions, in no particular order:

  • We’ll see more experiments with DRM-free major label music in the line of Yahoo Music’s efforts, but a full switch to DRM-free music distribution will not happen in 2007. And no, I don’t see Amazon’s rumored music store project turning the tide.
  • The Zune’s sharing feature will be incorporated in other music players, but in a much more interesting fashion. That means we’ll see devices with uncrippled wifi-support, allowing for unlimited (and possibly even cross-device) sharing.
  • The content industry (esp. in Japan) will continue pushing HD broadcasting and formats, while ignoring what most people actually want: instant, lightweight, malleable, shareable and mashable media à la YouTube and its more open variants.
  • The chaku-uta business won’t go away, but sales will slow down as more and more customers find out they’ll have to purchase all their media again when they switch to their second or third 3G handset.
  • One Japanese mobile carrier (SoftBank?) will start offering a cellphone with real MP3 support. AU and DoCoMo will try to ignore this development and stick to their DRM-encumbered, if-you’re-lucky-MP4-enabled handsets instead.
  • Japan will extend the term of protection for music and literary works from 50 to 70 years. Alas.
  • Once the time is there to start purchasing Vista licenses, the Japanese government will announce it is thinking about switching to Linux, which, as I’ve argued before, is just a negotiation tactic.

And what do you think?

Mobile DRM in Japan: another close look

On this blog and in my Japan Media Review paper, I’ve mentioned several times the restrictive DRM mechanisms inside Japanese keitai (mobile phones). Since about a year has passed since the last update, it’s time for another look — study object is AU’s W32T (the numbers below correspond to the Japanese manual‘s page numbers).

First, a quick intro for those unfamiliar with the concept: basically all Japanese keitai are internet enabled, and have a mail client and one or two browsers built in. This browser can be used for accessing websites, or else, for downloading content on-the-go. Downloaded or external content can be saved on the usually rather small internal memory unit (a couple of MB) or on removable flash memory (usually a few hundred MB). Some models also have an infrared port or are Bluetooth enabled, thereby giving its owner another way to move content from or onto his/her device.

And of course, DRM galore:

  • The basic rule is that almost every piece of content that touches your keitai gets a “copy-protection ON/OFF” flag (p 186). Notable exceptions are BMP and SWF files, which are always locked; DCF-type JPGs (= your own pictures), PIM data and email inboxes on the other hand are always unlocked (lucky us!).
  • Copy-protected files cannot be forwarded via mail (p 109) nor exchanged via Bluetooth (p 172). Furthermore, any form of editing is prohibited: this means you cannot resize copy-protected movies (p 179) or images (p 176), add GPS metadata to them (p 180) or reuse them as part of a “photo-mix” (p 344). Even using a copy-protected movie as an incoming call animation is forbidden (p 167).
  • Moving (not copying!) copy-protected files to the miniSD removable flash memory is possible, but only in case the content provider explicitly allows it. Caveat: when you move copy-protected files from the internal phone memory to the miniSD card, the files in question are automatically put in a (probably CPRM powered) “secure” folder, preventing them from being accessed with other devices than the keitai they were originally downloaded or received with (or a new keitai using the same number and carrier). Also interesting to know is that, in case you try to get access to the secure folder with a device other than the W32T, there is a chance the directory in question is corrupted and the data within might become unusable… (p 185)
  • EZ Movies (p 212) and EZ Channel mini-broadcasts (p 233) not only come with copying restrictions, but usually also have playback limitations built in, allowing the content provider to exactly define the number of playbacks customers can enjoy (play-count and absolute/relative time based expiration dates are possible). Free EZ Channel content for instance can only be played 3 times, and the downloaded TAR package is automatically deleted once a new episode becomes available.
  • The W32T, as well as most other recent keitai, supports playback of personal, non-downloaded movies or songs, provided they’re in the correct format — of course, there are non-official tools to help you with the conversion process. However, once you copy or move the media files in question from the miniSD card to the phone’s internal memory, the files’ copyright-flag is switched to ON, locking them to your mobile phone and inhibiting further processing (such as forwarding or resizing).
  • Another copyright related nag: the W32T’s Opera powered browser has no image download or select+copy functionality. I am not sure whether this was a copyright inspired design decision or not, but a few lines of JavaScript easily work around this lack of functionality.

That’s all for now. If you think that is a lot of DRM in such a small device, then bear in mind that I haven’t even touched DRM enabled mobile ebook reader applets, LISMO‘s DRM, or OneSeg Mobile TV DRM — something for future entries…

Doing mobile music business in Japan

Until recently, Japanese record companies were mere onlookers to the mobile music market. The chaku-mero (ringtones) phenomenon was booming, and the music industry didn’t see any direct profit from it. The many chaku-mero distributors only had to clear their catalog’s copyrights by paying a fee to JASRAC and they were set; as the creation of ringtones doesn’t involve any remixing of original sound fragments, neighboring rights were left untouched, keeping the record companies out of the game (more info). All that changed in the last two years. The Japanese record industry’s recipe for turning the tide:

  1. Agree with a couple of big labels that chaku-uta are the next big thing; as chaku-uta are 30 second remixes of popular songs, neighboring rights (and thus the music labels) are part of the game.
  2. Create a central chaku-uta distribution service (Label Mobile), which offers chaku-uta of the labels involved.
  3. Convince mobile phone makers and carriers to jump on the chaku-uta bandwagon so that their devices:
    • support chaku-uta‘s (uncommon) audio format (amc, later 3g2 & 3gp)
    • support the restrictive DRM chaku-uta are wrapped in
  4. Use the power deriving from your neighboring rights: deny all licensing requests from (potential) chaku-uta distributors other than Label Mobile without giving a clear reason.
  5. Get your offices raided by the Japanese Fair Trade Commission (JFTC).
  6. (In the meantime: introduce chaku-uta full, highly priced, DRMed mobile music downloads for next-generation handsets)
  7. Get an order of the JFTC to “[s]top the practice of refusing licenses to companies other than Label Mobile.”
  8. Reject the JFTC’s warning.
  9. ???

(via MocoNews)

Article: ‘The sound of the future’

An interesting article in the Daily Yomiuri about the current state and future of Japanese music: The sound of the future by Paul Jackson.

The article starts with the recent decision of the Tokyo District court that MMO Japan is subject to 71 million ¥ compensation to JASRAC and RIAJ for running the Filerogue filesharing software and contrasts several views and strategies concerning music downloads with each other (without being very critical, though). Jackson also touches the emerging phenomenon of 着歌 (chakuuta), which are copy-protected samples of hit singles that customers can download and use as ringtone for their mobile phones (currently only AU). In a next phase, Ryo Miyamae of Universal Music Japan foresees the emergence of an iPod like mobile phone that would enable users to download complete music tunes (and which will be, beyond doubt, full with DRM bloat).