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Baseball's DRM Strikes Out

Things that you buy are supposed to stay purchased. But you can't count on that if your property is a video or audio download "protected" by copy-control software: If somebody unplugs the so-called digital rights management system enforcing those controls, you can lose access to your purchase.

The latest example comes from Major League Baseball's MLB.com site. When it changed DRM systems earlier this year, it made older game downloads unplayable--but MLB did nothing to remedy the situation until Red Sox fan Allan Wood complained about it enough times on his blog.

Wood first noticed this problem back in April. He wrote that when he tried to watch a purchased video of a game, he didn't get the usual screen where he would enter his MLB.com user name and password (which he shouldn't have had to do after the first playback of the video anyway):

Instead of a log-in screen, however, I was directed to a page at MLB.com that no longer exists.... I am unable to log in and unable to watch the video file which MLB sold to me for $3.95. My only option is to click the "cancel" button.

(I've been reading Wood's "The Joy of Sox" for years, but I must have taken a break from it in April--otherwise I could have, and should have, jumped all over the story here. Lesson learned: I will never again let work get in the way of reading baseball blogs!)

When Wood found that his purchases were still inert last week, despite MLB's assurances that they'd be reactivated, he went ballistic, documenting the problem in a lengthy post:

By deleting the webpage and making it impossible for fans to watch the games they have paid for and downloaded, MLB has stolen $3.95 for every game from every fan.... Since MLB started this download service, I have bought and downloaded 71 games -- many of them from the Red Sox's August-September 2004 hot streak -- which works out to a total cost of $280.45

(Warning: Wood throws around about as many expletives as you'd expect, given the circumstances.)

At this point, numerous other sites picked up the story, and MLB must have realized it had a problem on its hands. Executives got in touch with Wood and said they'd work out a way to give him and other purchasers replacements for their old downloads.

On Thursday, MLB.com vice president of corporate communications Matthew Gould expressed regret for the snafu, saying the site's transition from its former DRM system "was somewhat inelegant." He said the deactivation of old downloads "was something that we just didn't anticipate."

Gould said people who had downloaded regular-season games from 2006 and earlier would be offered a new, free download at the same quality as before, while buyers of postseason games would get a higher-resolution replacement. (In a follow-up e-mail, Gould explained that downloads for 2004 came in a 320x240 resolution, with those for the next two years at 400x300--both considerably duller than the 640x480 resolution of MLB.com's current downloads.)

MLB's DRM system still has issues of its own, though. It requires Windows Media Player 10, limiting buyers to computers running recent versions of Windows. It also does not permit you to transfer your playback license to more than three computers, ever. Once you sell or dispose of those three computers, you can't watch those downloads anymore.

Gould said he was aware of that last problem, but did not say that MLB.com would commit to fixing it.

(MLB isn't the only source for complete games, since Apple's iTunes Store now sells copies of games with a much less restrictive form of DRM. But this wasn't an option back when Wood first went shopping.)

Past users of MLB.com's downloads, of course, have a more immediate issue: If you've been burned by that site once, will you want to buy again? In a phone call earlier today, Wood, citing the lower price of games--1.99 each, instead of $3.95 a pop--wouldn't rule that out. But he didn't sound tremendously optimistic either. "I really don't know," he said. "It really seems like a gamble now, going forward."

On Thursday, MLB.com's Gould said "I can't imagine something like this happening again." But I can. Even companies as big as Sony and Google can shutter music or video-download stores and leave their customers in the lurch; why should MLB be any different?

Did you buy any games from MLB.com and get the same treatment as Wood? If so, how likely are you to shop there again?


By Rob Pegoraro  |  November 9, 2007; 12:54 PM ET
Categories:  Video  
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