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By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, April 27, 2008

Q Should I do anything extra to back up the songs I bought from MSN Music? Microsoft's e-mail last week said my purchases would still work.

AMicrosoft's MSN Music store has been dying a slow death since the arrival of the company's Zune player in 2006. Last week, it officially moved to pull the plug by announcing an Aug. 31 shutdown of the store's "digital rights management" (DRM) system.

After then, MSN Music downloads will only work on computers already authorized to play them. To fix that, you need to extract your purchase from Microsoft's DRM: Burn those downloads to audio CDs, pop the freshly burned discs back into the computer, and re-copy the songs to the machine in an unlocked format, such as MP3. You will lose a little audio quality, but that can't be helped here.

Microsoft didn't spell this out in its confusing e-mail sent to MSN Music customers. This message said the company wanted to ensure a "seamless experience with the music you've downloaded" -- but if you try to play those files on a new PC after Aug. 31, you will experience not a seam so much as an abyss.

The e-mail did not detail the burn-and-re-copy routine noted above, giving only a vague reminder to "back up and secure your music by burning your purchased songs and playlists to CD."

Relatively few people shopped at MSN Music (though after giving the store a fairly positive review in 2004, I'm obliged to issue this warning). But the lesson applies to anyone buying "DRMed" music: These locks can get welded shut.

You're best off not buying music with DRM at all. Many online stores, such as iTunes and Zune Marketplace, now offer much of their catalogues without these restrictions, and Amazon's MP3 store ( http://amazon.com/mp3) doesn't carry any songs with DRM.

Rob Pegoraro attempts to untangle computing conundrums and errant electronics each week. Send questions to The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 orrobp@washpost.com. Turn to Thursday's Business section or visit washingtonpost.com anytime for his Fast Forward column.

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