Rights in Data

Composer1 *

Today, we live in an almost entirely digital universe.

In that digital universe, we frequently buy digital ‘products’ which are assumed to be as immutable and permanent as any other material good which we might exchange for currency.

That assumption, based on a recent experience I had, would be completely and woefully incorrect.

I’m an unrepentant, unreformed musician.

My teenage band played CBGB during the second wave of do-it-yourself rock and roll. I’ve jammed with George Thorogood and John Mellencamp when their tours took them through Baltimore, and I’ve purchased a bottle of Hennessey Cognac – required by a contract rider – that I personally placed in the hands of Muddy Waters.

My house is filled with basses and guitars and more music than Doan’s has little back pills.

In the last 10 years, much of that music has been purchased through Amazon.

As a guy that really needed to keep his day job, the Systems Engineer portion of my personality has provided file server platforms in my house to keep digital forms of that music where the entire household can get to it. Of the shared directories on that 4TB file server, the largest one, by far, is the music share.

A few weeks ago, I did what I frequently do on payday, which is that I purchased a few CDs from Amazon.

(A tribute album for the late Tulsa Composer JJ Cale and a new Richard Thompson compilation, for those that wonder)

Amazon provides a MP3 version of physical recordings that one purchases, which saves me a few minutes in ripping new music to the server, and allows me to have immediate access to digital copies of new music that I’ve purchased.

Theoretically, it’s a nice value add.


Because what happened next is one of the most extraordinary violations of customer rights I have seen in nearly 30 years in the Information Technology universe.

After I completed the purchase, I went to download the digital copies of my new ‘records’.

And that, as my British friends are wont to say, is where everything began to go horribly pear-shaped.

Formerly, when one wanted to download a new album, it was possible to execute the new download inside one’s Internet browser.

This time, I got a pop-up indicating the ‘the best experience’ was going to be obtained using Amazon’s Music Player application.

I should point out that it wasn’t ‘the best experience’, but rather the only experience, as the browser downloads were no longer functional.

“What could possibly go wrong?”, I thought, and I upgraded my existing copy of Amazon’s music player with the new player.

I launched the player and downloaded my new albums. As I would expect, the Amazon player identified all of my prior purchases and displayed them in the Amazon music player, including the library on my file server, which was visible on my PC as a persistently mapped network drive.

Then I closed the player, as I am accustomed to using Windows built-in media player to play all of my music, including MP3s obtained from other online sources and ripped from analog sources such as records and cassettes.

And that’s when something truly strange happened.

My new music would not play in Windows Media Player.

For a control, I checked a title that I listen to a lot. It wouldn’t play either.

Every single MP3 I’d ever obtained from Amazon – whether they had digitized them or I had – would no longer play in Windows Media Player.

Turning to the Internet, it was instantly clear that I was not alone.

The Amazon support forums made it pretty clear what was going on. The updated player had parsed the ID3 tags of every single recording I’d ever purchased from them, and written a format that the Microsoft player couldn’t read.

I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether this was sloppy system engineering and testing, or a deliberate act.

Think for a second about what I’m describing here.

A piece of software that I didn’t buy traversed my network, accessed a file server using my credentials, and overwrote the metadata of digital products I did buy, in some cases as much as ten years ago. In doing so, it made them useless for the purpose for which they were originally purchased.


When you put it like that, it sounds like a crime.

That’s because it is a crime.

I’ve never seem any software license that gives a publisher a right to access and alter or destroy data that the application can access. And if I’d seen one, nobody would sign it. This is illegal access to an information system, pure and simple. People are in federal prison for exactly this right now, today.

The users of the product and the support forum have even been able to diagnose exactly what the nature of the problem is for Amazon. They’ve made use of ID3 tag editors to confirm that the Album art that the player wrote into the ID3 tags does not fully conform to the ID3 format specification. Delete the one field, and the track plays. Write the information back with an editor that does conform to the specification, and the track plays.

Trying to make Amazon fix this has not yet been successful.

After much effort, I’ve been able to speak to the Product Manager for the Amazon media player product. He admits fault while denying ill intent.

This is in no way surprising.

He offered to refund all the money I’ve ever spent on Amazon music, in order to make it up to me. His minions then refunded only the money I’ve spent on Amazon digital music which is only about 2 percent of my total expenditure – and then refunded the money to a credit card that is closed.

That really made me feel better.

I remain hopeful that the Amazon team will really fix this, but the 8 months’ worth of customer narratives on the support forums tell a different story.

So what I am faced with is a company that I’ve done really substantial business with over many years that has willfully accessed products I’ve purchased and altered them without my permission so that I can no longer use them. Whether they’ve done this to force customers to use their products or to injure their competitors doesn’t really matter.

Until they make good on this, it bespeaks an organization with an extraordinarily shocking lack of ethics and integrity, and a sheer ruthlessness of a magnitude that I’ve never seen before in my many years in the Information Technology Business.

And although Amazon is a huge company, it really gives on pause as to whether it’s really smart to run business applications or store critical information on their cloud infrastructure. If they will willingly run roughshod and trespass on my digital property on my network, I can’t imagine they would have more scruples in the case of their infrastructure.