But why worry about losing something that you download from the Internet? Unlike files you create yourself, you always download them again—can’t you?
You can if you’re like me and what you download is freely available. Backing up things that you’ve paid for the privilege of downloading is something else again. Welcome to the wonderful world of Digital Rights Management (“DRM” for short).
Even I am not living under a rock to the extent that I don’t know that the music industry frowns on bootleg copies, and Hollywood doesn’t appreciate them, either. In fact, most people who make money by selling their intellectual property aren’t too keen on having someone else take their stuff and give it away. And when people take our stuff and sell it, we get really burned up.
Book publishers have the security of knowing that it usually costs more to photocopy a book than to buy one, but copying electronic files is normally fast, easy, and cheap. This results in attempts to copy-proof digital media. These attempts frequently backfire, creating serious PR problems for the media company. (Anyone remember the Sony rootkit scandal?)
Worse yet, neither proprietary file formats nor any other kind of DRM will deter a determined professional cracker for long. Illegal copies of Windows Vista have been available for weeks. At best, DRM might keep out the amateurs. At worst, it punishes the very people who have done the right thing and paid for the files.
My only personal encounter with the problem came shortly after I bought an iriver IFP-795 to record presentations with. I decided to test it out as a listening device, too, so I transferred a couple of podcasts onto it with the iriver Music Manager. Later I wanted to move them onto the SanDisk Sansa 230 I normally use for listening, but found I couldn’t. The iriver Music Manager refuses to let you copy files from the player onto the computer. It doesn’t matter whether there’s any DRM on the actual files. The software assumes that any audio format besides its own .REC files is copyrighted, copy-protected material, and therefore it can only be transferred in one direction: from the computer to the player.
Even though this was a minor inconvenience (I just downloaded the MP3 again and put it on the Sansa, which sensibly acts just like a memory stick and lets you move things onto and off it without complaining), I was seriously annoyed.
This is the kind of thing that has led to the creation of third-party programs like the iBack iPod backup tool, which is designed to let you copy files from your iPod to any computer, and GetData’s Recover My iPod, which rescues iPod owners from the loss of their iTunes collection when they reinstall their computers and from assorted firmware problems with the iPod itself.
iTunes itself will let you back up to a CD or DVD. Just go to File | Back Up to Disc. You have the option of backing up the whole library and your playlists, or just your iTunes store purchases. The initial dialog box contains the helpful tip “To restore from a backup disc, open iTunes and insert the disc.” That sounded simple enough.
I decided to try it out, and discovered that I had more in my iTunes library than I’d realized. To expedite this experiment, I cleaned out the files I didn’t need so that everything would fit on one CD. It still took a surprisingly long time to burn the CD, but the result is a perfectly normal data CD with the different MP3 files stored in folders according to artist name. Copying individual files back onto the computer from the CD was no problem.
The author of the Hacking Netflix blog points out that most download services, including Wal-Mart, Amazon, and iTunes, will not let you download your movies again if the files are lost or damaged. Since you have proof that you did pay for the files, this seems pretty outrageous at first blush. On the other hand, I don’t suppose the local movie store would give me another copy of a DVD just because I showed them a receipt and said I’d lost or broken the first one, either. And I’d have trouble proving that I hadn’t made a copy of it.
As long as your download service lets you make backup copies, your downloads are as safe as the rest of your data—assuming, of course, that you go ahead and make those backups. Avoid any service that doesn’t provide you with an option to back up the files, and any files that you can’t copy back and forth to your computer.