Amazon Changes Download Policies: DRM Creep or Privacy Nightmare?

Yes, the title is a bit overblown, but I figure that’s how the guys at Gawker make the big bucks. So…

I bought two MP3s today, maybe a half an hour apart. I usually buy music from Amazon, a loyalty I’ve had since they started offering MP3s in 2007 due to their professed commitment to DRM-free music, something that the market hadn’t yet forced iTunes to understand. And I’ve always been happy with ease of purchases, etc.

Today, though, when I was downloading Rose Royce’s classic “Ooh Boy,” something happened that I’d never seen before: it prompted me to “Authorize a device” to download my music onto. I did so with trepidation, thinking that it sounded like they were institute some sort of Digital Rights Management. I tweeted immediately after:

Not much later, I checked out a video on Facebook by Brother Ali, who a friend described as “the greatest blind albino rapper of all time.” (And seriously, dude’s talented! Check him out!) I immediately wanted to own that track. So I went over to buy it on Amazon. I was forced to go through yet another re-install of the Amazon MP3 Downloader. Then, when I clicked on “download your music,” I had yet another “authorize device” script pop up. I selected my computer and… it refused to accept that, as I had already authorized a device with that name.

At that point, I was frustrated and just wanted my music. So I went to the support page and started a chat with a customer support person at Amazon named Sanjit. Below is a partial transcript of my interaction with Sanjit. Emphases are mine, and added for easy skimming:

Sanjit:
I am really sorry that you are not able to download the songs. May I have the order number which you want to download?

Me:
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
I was able to download the Rose Royce song
And now I can’t download the Brother Ali song
Even though they’re in the same order.

Sanjit:
I am sorry for this I’ve re-sent your purchase to Amazon Cloud Player (http://www.amazon.com/cloudplayer) where you can try the download again.

Me:
Um.
You see, I have the Amazon MP3 downloader so I don’t have to download from the cloud player.
Is going to the cloud player a new, extra step to make the process less convenient?

Sanjit:
I understand your concern. But our procedure for MP3 download has been changed. We are not able to send your songs directly to downwloader. We can send it to cloud player where you can launch your downloader as well.

I was confused at this point, and pushed him to explain whether the “authorized device” issue was due to some sort of DRM:

Me:
Are you now using DRM on your songs?

Sanjit:
I am sorry. The MP3 files you purchase from Amazon.com contain no digital rights management (DRM) restrictions, are provided in an industry standard MP3 format, and should be compatible with most systems capable of reading MP3 audio files.

Me:
Okay, so why do I have to authorize a device?
If I’m an Amazon customer, shouldn’t I be able to download music I pay for?
You don’t limit me to ten mailing addresses for my books.

Sanjit:
The files you purchase from the Amazon MP3 Store are free of any digital rights management software to allow you more freedom with managing your music library. It seems that download is not working properly. I would request you to please try to uninstall your downloader and reinstall it once.

Me:
The download worked once I went into the cloud player.
But you’re evading my question.
Why do I have to authorize my device?
Surely, if Amazon has instituted a new policy on this, they have a boxed answer ready for people who are confused or upset by it, because it does seem suggestive of DRM.
If the files are DRM-free, I can move them from device to device. So why am I limited to downloading to only 10 devices?
I’m assuming there has now been a script change for you guys indicating that if I ask this question, you should answer in a certain way. I’m just curious what Amazon’s official response is, here.
Sanjit? You still there bro?

Sanjit:
yes.
Tad, there is no restriction to use the songs on different devices. You can use downloaded songs on multiple device. However, Amazon Cloud Drive and Amazon Cloud Player allow access from up to 10 devices. This includes mobile devices, different computers, and different browsers on the same computer.
The device limit can be reached if your web browser cookies are deleted or if your browser is set to automatically delete cookies.

After that, I thanked him for his help, and told him I would take what he has told me under advisement as I consider whether I want to continue to use Amazon as my MP3 retailer.

I know that trying to gauge the direction and strategy of a tech corporation from the position of a lowly customer is something akin to Kremlinology or reading tea leaves. That said, it can also be quite fun, which is why the Apple fan boards are always so active.

What is Amazon heading toward with this new “user authorization” protocol? Personally, I can think of three possibilities:

  1. It was a compromise negotiated with music labels for the cloud player. Nothing will change as far as Amazon’s general policies on MP3 DRM, and maybe they’ll be able to bring in artists or labels who had been previously adverse to the cloud player.
  2. It’s a back door to DRM. Sure, Amazon won a lot of customers by going DRM-free, and they got to flex a little corporate muscle at Apple and force them to reverse course. They’re both retailers, of course they want to prove market influence, especially coming out of the gate. But DRM has been good to Amazon. They have the most popular and least open reading device in the Kindle. The DRM on their video downloads is so tight that Mac and Linux users can only stream video they’ve purchased. This could be step one of a slow creep toward DRM– because DRM makes labels happy and retailers happy, too, by forcing repeated purchases of the same file. If they do it slowly and quietly, maybe consumers won’t raise a ruckus, as they’re now locked in by years of use and the synergy of things like the Kindle Fire and Amazon Prime.
  3. DRM is a Red Herring. This is actually all about what Sanjit said about cookies.  Rich consumer user data is cash in the bank for retailers and marketers. And Amazon is both. Is it possible that really this just an annoyance to keep users from flushing cookies from Amazon? Is user data Amazon’s Next Big Thing? It seems to be what everyone’s banking on with Facebook. Get people to always be at least partially on your site, and you get rich minable data on your customers that they would never volunteer.

Of these, I’m hopeful that it’s number one, afraid it’s number two, and number three seems like it’s reaching a bit.

I’m curious, though, if anyone else has any theories as to the reasons for this change? Or if anyone might be able to point me to a source at Amazon that can make it clearer?

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27 Responses to Amazon Changes Download Policies: DRM Creep or Privacy Nightmare?

  1. Nick Barnard says:

    Two thoughts:
    1. ” their professed commitment to DRM-free music, something that the market hadn’t yet forced iTunes to understand.” AFAIK, Apple would’ve loved to go DRM free sooner, but the labels prevented them from doing so so that Amazon and other DRM free music sellers could gain a foothold.

    2. I think Amazon probably has always had the 10 device limit on cloud player. What has changed is that they want people to use cloud player, thus they’ve removed the option to download music directly. Additionally, this streamlines the features so that there is only one, instead of two ways to download music.. (which while counter-intuitive in some ways, makes support easier, since you don’t have to maintain two ways to do the same thing.)

  2. eric says:

    Thank you Leisurely Historian for writing about this. It shows that you are actually awake at the wheel of your life, and are aware of your consumerism, unlike the sea of asleep consumers who would otherwise not even notice this new sly extra step in Amazon’s mp3 purchase process. I have just now noticed this extra step, and began surfing the net for answers. Well the search continues…why has Amazon all of a sudden changed they way we all used to buy their mp3s with this new “authorized devices” requirement? I will not be buying anymore MP3s from Amazon until I understand what is going on.

  3. Richard Brust says:

    It’s not the 10 authorized devices that bothers me, it’s that they did not implement it correctly. We have a Mac with three users – all with their own logons, and only one of us can be “authorized” on this computer. Now, the other two can no longer download their music, even though they had been already for a while.

    I just hope they fix this, as I have over 6000 songs, the last 250 or so from Amazon, as I’d been switching from purchasing from iTunes. As others have stated in Amazon posts, bye-bye Amazon if it does not get fixed.

    • Jamie says:

      I’ve just run into this issue for the first time myself, and it’s especially annoying since I just got a new computer a month ago. Apparently letting someone else in the house borrow my computer and log in to their Amazon account and download some music before I purchased any on my own account authorized my computer to THEIR account, which means that I cannot authorize my computer to MY account. It’s pretty messed up. Sure, I can still boot up my old, slow laptop, or download to my Android phone and then transfer the files, but that’s annoying, and means I can’t download straight to my own computer for another six months.

  4. Diane says:

    I just got hit with the whammy of device authorization on Amazon too. Such a shame they are headed in this direction. Guess it’s time to hunt down a new mp3 retailer….Can y’all let me know who is the next best music site?

  5. Frank Stone says:

    I get the “authorize device” BS too. So far, no one at Amazon has told me if I *really* have to do that (I’m waiting for another reply from them). To me, it’s getting permission to download something I just bought. Screw that. If that’s their new regime, the hell with it. Cloud shmoud.

  6. Frank Stone says:

    One more thing: It seems we can’t disable the cloud. I’d be happy to bypass the damn thing but can’t. Amazon had all my recent download purchases on it’s cloud player. I deleted all of them. I didn’t ask to be on their cloud and it’s bad usability to force customers on it. Hell, they still get customer data every time we buy something! Btw, I also deleted Amazon cookies from FF and tried again-still need permission, er, authorization, to download.

  7. mike acker says:

    yep, this ain’t gonna work for me either: I have my browser set to delete all cookies on closing. No big deal; MP/3s ain’t all that good to begin with.

    If I was a betting Man I’d wager 5 cookies all this is is an attempt to keep track of what people have in their music library.

    just like you can’t get a document out of a kindle reader you won’t be able to get your music out of that cloud, either.

    at least now we know what all this cloud crap is about.

  8. Mr Armadillo says:

    I just hit the same BS. I am no longer using Amazon for MP3 downloads.

  9. Boodica says:

    Very displeased by this. I will NOT buy any more until this is changed back.

  10. Erica says:

    Why can’t I find much information about this? I delete my cookies all the time and all of a sudden could only use one device for my new album. You have to delete cookies ALL the time infact some of the troubleshooting even on amazon site states to delete cookies. I complained to amazon and they told me a take it or leave it answer. I’m totally disgusted. This was around christmas time so it’s almost a year it looks like they aren’t changing anything and people just keep buying, oblivious. They probably won’t notice till they change a device and wonder why it won’t appear. How disgusting.

  11. Carl says:

    Erica, you can find more info on their own forum at this link.

  12. Boodica says:

    We need to get this out, there’s still a lot of people who don’t understand or know about this change.

  13. Boodica says:

    Does anybody use Linux? Will this work? https://code.google.com/p/pymazon/

  14. Boodica says:

    Not working with Linux, either. Looks like a little revolt brewing on the Amazon forum.

  15. Vicki says:

    Yes, I just encountered this for the first time, too. I’ve been buying mp3s from Amazon for a long time, and this definitely sets off alarm bells in my head.

  16. z says:

    “something that the market hadn’t yet forced iTunes to understand. ”

    Hmm, pretty sure all music downloads on iTunes have been DRM-free for like 4 or 5 years, no?

    • Tad says:

      No, about three years ago.

      2007 was when Amazon did it, which was five years ago.

      And five is a larger number than three.

      I’m not sure what you’re implying, though– would you like to elaborate?

      • Bill says:

        Having researched this last year and again after the recent changes to Cloud Player, here’s what I learned then and now.

        Up until the recent changes, Cloud Player had an 8 device limit for uploads, streaming, and downloads, as I understand it. This was by device, and in the case of web access on computers, by browser. I learned this the hard way when I hit the cap, called in for support. They wiped out the authorizations and I started over, this time limiting myself to just Firefox use on our computers. At this time, they were apparently using cookies within the browsers to control the authorizations. The authorizations were totally invisible to the user (I think).

        With the recent changes (July 31, 2012?), the authorizations are now visible and manageable by the user. The limit went from 8 to 10. There is no mention of browsers, so I contacted Customer Service and they said browsers no longer matter, it’s by computer; this may be tied to installation of uploader and downloader software. I have accessed my music from Kindle Fires, computers using multiple browsers, and phones. The Kindle Fires seem to have automatically authorized themselves (perhaps their authorizations were pre-loaded). The only time I’ve been asked to authorize another device (a computer) was when uploading songs. In fact, the online help talks about authorizations being tied to uploads and downloads.

        Bottom Line: I’m happier now that I can see what devices have been authorized and I have some control of that.

        • Tad says:

          Bill–

          That’s good to know, and does reduce my frustration somewhat.

          So many issues like this could be resolved with better corporate communications policies that made things more transparent.

  17. Reece Hart says:

    From http://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html/ref=hp_left_cn?ie=UTF8&nodeId=200593990 on 2012-12-29:

    =====
    Record Company Required Metadata

    Some record companies require us to insert identifiers in the metadata that accompanies music when you download it from the Amazon MP3 Store or Cloud Player. Learn more.
    =====

    Is this part of the new downloader/dropped linux support (mediocre as it was)?

    • Andy says:

      I just ran into this problem. Direct downloading was approximately as fast as downloading from iTunes. This seems *much* slower, and it is also buggy: the downloader has crashed a couple of times, and it has also failed to download some tracks. (Which can be downloaded only by going to the cloud and downloading from there…again, if the downloader doesn’t crash.) If it does crash, it usually requires me to reboot.

      (FWIW about DRM: Amazon was only allowed to offer DRM-free music because the publishers allowed them to (and didn’t allow Apple to). Apple was only able to get the ability to download DRM free music by agreeing to not sell all music for 99c. Neither Apple nor Amazon really care for DRM, since DRM-free music sells better).

  18. dgw says:

    This is why I regularly download everything in “Recently added” to my hard drive. If Amazon goes in and adds DRM to their files in the future, I’ll have all but maybe the last few tracks that I didn’t get around to downloading in time as clean MP3s, ready to take with me if I have to dump Amazon MP3 for another service.

  19. Miguel says:

    last song i ever buy from amazon

  20. Pingback: I’m back! | Holly Boyer

  21. ladcrp1 says:

    I get mysterious device names propagating. Silly names like “Kathy’s New PC #9”?

    Then I go to download a song and I have USED all my authorized device allocation. Honest, I haven’t. There’s just me.

    WTF?

  22. *sighs* – I didn’t realize the interface between computer, and mobile device, had changed this drastically. I seem to recall that waaaaaay back in 2013, I could freely upload and download mp3’s onto Amazon’s storage space without even needing the app. Correct me if I’m wrong…but wasn’t the interface purely web-based, without restriction, or am I looking back with rose-colored glasses?

    LOL…I know there’s no excuse for this in 2015, and I feel like a dinosaur for not noticing any of this until just today, but seriously…I typically just stream audio from Pandora or the myriad of other apps that have been available since 2013 and earlier, so I haven’t bothered with transporting mp3 files between devices.

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