How much money have you spent at the iTunes store? And what do you have to show for it? An iPod full of music? TV shows? Those new games and movies? Too many people forget how much money they've put into their digital media. And when bad things happen--house fires, computer theft, iPod loss--they're not always prepared to be able to recover those digital assets.
There's something deeply intangible about the items we buy at the iTunes store. They entertain us, educate us, amuse, and move us, but in the end they're nothing more than streams of bits and bytes without a physical product to go with them. When we buy software, there's usually an option to purchase a hard copy and have it shipped to us. Not so with iTunes. There's no hard iTunes product.
In this article, I'm going to survey some of the ways you can protect and recover your iTunes purchases. There are physical ways like backing up your disks or burning your songs to CD or your movies to DVD. And there are non-physical ways, like taking out some insurance or requesting second downloads. Prepare against disaster and to make sure you protect that investment you've made in going digital.
Obviously, regular full-computer backups are the easiest way to protect your digital media purchases. Regular backups, preferably redundant ones, make sure your data is there when you need it. You can use any kind of backup plan that works for you and store your data to hard drives, tapes, writable discs, online storage, etc.
For example, if you've got a .Mac account with its Backup software, you can automatically back up your iTunes data in addition to your personal data by selecting the Purchased Music and Video backup plan in addition to your other backups (Figure 1). This plan automatically backs up your iTunes purchases on a regular scheduled basis. Very convenient when you tend to forget things. (It's unclear at this time whether Backup has yet been updated to handle your iTunes game purchases. If not, this should follow quickly on last week's introduction of the iTunes Games store.)
Figure 1: .Mac offers an automated backup utility that lets you select from a variety of pre-built plans. The Purchased Music plan automatically backs up your iTunes purchases.
If you're not a .Mac user, iTunes 7 now introduces its own built-in way to back up and restore your media library and playlists. Choose File -> Back Up To Disc to open the automated wizard shown in Figure 2. This wizard walks you through the process of backing up to either CDs or DVDs. Choose among backing up your entire library or your iTunes Store purchases, or creating an incremental backup that saves the new data you've downloaded since your last backup. Unlike the .Mac Backup program, iTunes 7 will not remind you when it's time to back up your purchases. It's up to you to remember to back up regularly.
Figure 2: The iTunes 7 backup wizard offers a simple interactive way for you to back up and restore your iTunes media.
The time this iTunes backup process takes and the number of discs used depends on the size of your iTunes media collection. With the new, larger video format, you may be surprised at how much space your iTunes data occupies. A 100-minute movie may take up more than a gigabyte. I recommend reviewing your library using the freeware Grand Perspective utility, which graphically shows your disk usage on a file-by-file and folder-by-folder basis.
The .Mac and iTunes 7 backup procedures create data discs. These are not the CDs and DVDs you normally play in your home entertainment units. Instead, they store your music and video as data files that can be read back by your computer. Consider burning audio CDs instead (File -> Burn Playlist to Disc). Burning your purchased music albums to CD is actually a surprisingly effective way to create not only a reliable backup, but also a disc you can listen to on your CD walkman. Not everyone owns or uses iPods.
Sure, to recover music back from a burned CD, you'll have to "rip it:" insert the CD, wait for it to mount in iTunes, select its tracks and then use Advanced -> Convert Selection to AAC (or MP3). Still, music CDs are portable and useful. You can play them in your car's CD player. You can walk one to a friend's house and listen to it on their stereo. In short, you can do more with a burned music CD than with a data CD, in addition to using it as a backup.
Burning TV shows and movies proves a little more complicated. Because of digital rights management, you cannot burn your videos directly to DVD. iDVD and iMovie won't even read them properly. If you want to transfer your purchases to disc, you'll need to exploit the so-called Analog Hole. The Analog Hole refers to the way that digital media has to produce an analog signal in order to be played back on traditional television sets. This analog signal cannot be scrambled or encrypted, otherwise your TV would not be able to play it. So the analog signal can be recorded.
I described in an earlier article how to hook your iPod to your TV to produce a watchable analog signal. This same watchable signal can be hooked up to your DVD recorder. You can record the video as you play back your iTunes purchases. This creates a copy that backs up your purchase and allows you to watch it on non-Apple hardware and software.
To test this, I purchased a copy of Grosse Pointe Blank from the iTunes store. I played it on my iPod while copying it to DVD and then watched the DVD both on the computer and TV. It was watchable, but certainly not as good a quality as the video sent directly from the iPod. There's no obvious protection scheme--like Macrovision, for example--that I could detect being used. However, when played back full-screen on my Mac, you could definitely tell there were some shakes and wiggles involved in the data file. A video stabilizer failed to improve the recording quality, as it would with a Macrovision title.
As with music CDs, there were several wins. I could play the DVD over at friends' houses. One friend has all her TV connections hidden in a cabinet without easy access to the video-in plugs. I couldn't just bring over the iPod for playback with that setup. Copying to DVD allowed me to play the movie at her house and also in my car, which is set up for DVDs but not for connecting to the iPod. Overall, however, the quality was decreased and my copying to disc skated the boundaries between backup and fair use.
Tip: A reader from the O'Reilly Mac Blog bought a lower-quality video just ten minutes before upgrading to iTunes 7. He noted, "If you own a video bought on iTunes but want the higher definition one, you have to pay again." Can people who purchased videos within a certain time frame of the iTunes announcement request a new download in the better resolution? According to Apple, customers who request a higher-resolution version of a purchase are considered on a case-by-case basis. And what about people with limited hard drives/iPod space? Will Apple offer the option to download at a lower resolution? Apple declined to reply, noting that they're unable to provide more specific information, or speculate about future offerings.
Your iTunes library is usually stored in your home music library. It is a simple collection of folders and data files. You may find some or all of the following items in your library (Figure 3):
Figure 3: The iTunes library in your home music folder usually contains all your purchased iTunes items, including movies, music, TV shows, and games.
Tip: By holding down the
Alt) key down when launching iTunes, you can select which folder you want to use as your iTunes library.
The data files you'll most want to protect and back up are in the iTunes Music and iPod Games folders. You can copy all or part of these folders to other computers or to other devices to protect them as well as to share them.
When you want to transfer music to another computer, you can just send the music files over your local network or throw those files onto a USB pen drive to copy them over. That's because transferring iTunes music is not just a matter of copying data. It's also about authorizing that data to play back.
When you attempt to play back purchased music on a new computer, iTunes will prompt you to authorize that computer. You will not be able to play your purchases on a second machine until you authorize that machine for your account. Apple allows you to authorize up to five computers for playback at a time.
Until the release of iTunes 7, you needed software like SciFiHiHi's PodWorks to recover music from an iPod. PodWorks allows you to copy music and video from your iPod's library onto other computers. This can be very handy when your computer has died and your iPod has not. With PodWorks, you can browse the library of any iPod connected to your Mac and choose which songs you wanted to copy to your hard drive.
Enter iTunes 7. With the new File -> Transfer Purchases option, you can buy on one computer, sync your iPod, and then transfer that purchase from the iPod to another computer. In the end, both of your computers (and your iPod) have copies of your media and you've created an instant (and easy) backup system.
In addition to the manual Transfer Purchases command, iTunes 7 now detects whenever you sync an iPod that contains purchases not found in your iTunes library (Figure 4). It prompts you to decide whether you want to transfer those items into your iTunes library. By clicking Transfer, you begin the process (Figure 5) of copying those files.
Figure 4: iTunes 7 automatically detects purchases on your iPod that are not present in your computer's iTunes library.
Figure 5: When you Transfer Purchases, iTunes copies the purchased files from your iPod to your computer, providing a progress monitor. Depending on the scope of these new files and the quality of your USB or FireWire connection, it may take some time for the transfer to complete.
Unlike the new options that allow you to choose which files to sync from your computer to your iPod, the purchase transfer process has no user controls. All "new" purchases found on the iPod are copied to your computer.
Be aware that the transfer process can fail (Figure 6). When attempting to copy from your iPod to your disk, you may encounter errors. I did during a couple of transfer attempts. Using third-party software like PodWorks may help you get around these problems, especially as these new features grow and mature.
Figure 6: Don't depend on the new iTunes 7 purchase transfer feature to work consistently.
Bad stuff happens. Fire. Theft. Diet Red Bull spills. Hyperactive children. And sometimes we're just not as good at backing up our data as we should be, even if iTunes 7 makes backups much easier. Yes, you should have been doing those backups. But you're human. And Apple understands--at least as well as any heartless, multinational for-profit conglomerate can understand.
When disaster strikes, Apple has a policy of a one-time-per-lifetime data intervention. (Apple does not otherwise offer purchase-loss protection.) In the case of the catastrophic loss of one's entire iTunes library, Apple will step in and allow you to re-download your entire purchase history as it did for blogger Wil Wheaton. You need to contact Apple directly and make your individual case.
This once-per-lifetime exception does not apply to media that you purchase that fails to be delivered (use Store -> Check for Purchases) or media that arrives corrupted. (Contact Apple Support and ask for a re-download.)
The introduction of iTunes 7 seems to have corrupted a small subset of people's existing purchases. For example, my Aquaman pilot no longer syncs to my iPod (Figure 7). In the case of corrupted files that you suspect went bad due to an iTunes upgrade, again contact Apple Support to request a re-download. Your request should not affect the once-per-lifetime-catastrophe eligibility.
Figure 7: iTunes 7 ate my Aquaman pilot.
Tip: To see an organized-by-date list of your prior purchases, choose Store -> View My Account, and then click Purchase History.
Apple's DRM-limits can affect the way you access your digital media. Apple limits the number of authorized computers to five. This sounds like a lot until you consider how, over time, your number of active and "ex-devices" may grow.
You may sell your computer. Your computer may just die. You might leave it on the train on the way to work. Or it might get stolen. Once you reach five devices, you're stuck. You can copy your media to more computers, but you won't be able to authorize them for playback. And you can't directly de-authorize computers that aren't physically in your possession.
Fortunately, Apple has a way around that. Once a year, Apple allows you to do a mass de-authorization of all your purchases. This resets your number of authorized computers back to zero, and allows you to start fresh. Re-authorize the computers you actually own and have around you and regain access to all your media. Visit your Account Information in iTunes, where a Deauthorize All button will appear when you have reached the level of five authorized computers.
According to the UK's Independent newspaper, insurers are starting to "get in tune with the iPod generation". It's no longer just about adding your iPod hardware to your home-owners insurance. Insurers like Nationwide understand that your intangible assets, like iTunes purchases, ringtones, and games can be lost, too. New coverage adds entertainment downloads to the existing kinds of insured belongings.
Don't, of course, assume that you're covered. Check with your insurance carrier first. Make sure that they offer this coverage and check whether you need to add a special rider to your policy. Typically coverage includes "fire, theft, or flood," but not hard-drive failure or accidentally reformatting your disk. If you own a substantial collection, it may be worth your money to add this coverage to your policy.
Knowledge is power. All the "ounce of prevention/pound of cure" sayings in the world won't help unless you know what you need to be doing. Hopefully this article has helped you figure out which ounces of prevention are worth your while to investigate. And also, hopefully they'll inspire you to avoid the worst of the pound-of-cure scenarios. Whether your solution involves regular backups, syncing to your iPod, purchasing intangibles insurance, or knowing when to throw yourself at the mercy of Apple is up to you. As you've read, there are any number of ways to protect your iTunes purchases. Now it's up to you to pick the ones you think will work best for you and to put them into practice.
Erica Sadun has written, co-written, and contributed to almost two dozen books about technology, particularly in the areas of programming, digital video, and digital photography.
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