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The strange tale of my legal copy of the DJ Hero soundtrack, and why the PC is scary for record labels

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Harmonix is putting a PC version of the latest Rock Band game on the back burner, and one reason is the music industry's fear of piracy. Putting music on a game in this way is a scary thing for record labels who are nervous about losing control of the source material.

Which brings us to the strange case of the DJ Hero soundtrack, and how I was able to rip what may be the only legal version of the soundtrack that doesn't exist on the game's disc.

DJ Hero was an amazing game, and it was a release that would have only been possible at the height of the rhythm game craze. Each song on the game was an original composition, including two existing songs that were mixed together by a DJ who created a brand-new track for the game.

The talent was incredible; Queen was mashed up with Beastie Boys. 50 Cent was mixed with David Bowie. It was an achievement not just in music, but in legal wrangling to get those rights together and have the artists agree for their songs to be used in this way. It's not surprising that the full soundtrack was never released; getting everyone to agree to relicense the songs commercially in this form would have been a nightmare.

But I wanted to listen to the songs, how could I get them off the game without breaking the law?

Enter the EFF

I spoke with Fred von Lohmann of the Electronic Freedom Foundation, and he explained that grabbing the tracks would be legal, but the trick is I had to do so without breaking any copy protection. If I found a way to grab the audio without bypassing any form of the game's protection, I was free and clear.

"It seems unlikely that you can't get the files without breaking copy protection—doesn't the Wii have a digital audio output? If so, it's not DRMed, because there is no DRM standard for Toslink or coax audio outputs," he told me. "If it's HDMI only, I'm not sure that the audio portion of HDMI is protected—I assume you can HDMI to your receiver, then do optical digital out from your receiver to an audio capture card. Of course, the analog audio outputs can be patched right to an audio capture card, too. No DRM there!"

Using the party mode setting of the game and a playlist that included every track, I was able to grab the files without breaking the law. I still have a copy; a legally obtained, full soundtrack to DJ Hero. That story originally ran in 2010, and I get people e-mailing me asking for copies with surprising regularity.

No, you can't have it. Yes, it's easy to find. But mine is legal, even if that just meant I went to much more trouble for the same files.

The music industry has reasons to be leery of these situations. The Guitar Hero version of Metallica's Death Magnetic was widely considered to be preferable to the incredibly loud mastering of the album version, and many fans ripped that version and passed it around. The music industry isn't just worried about piracy — it's not like it's hard to "steal" music — the issue is these games contain something far more powerful and rare than the music: The stems.

When a rhythm game uses a song it can't just use a copy of the song; to break out each playable instrument and separate it the developer has to have access to the original recording material. That means, for instance, that's it's likely Harmonix had access to the masters of the Beatles songs used in the game. For a music fan that's close to touching the holy grail.

Those stems have immense worth, and could be used for all sorts of things; including unauthorized remixes or sampling. It's very likely that those stems are what the music industry is protecting, and why so much security has to be put on these games. Security that doesn't exist on the PC. For reference, the list of albums with stems available to the public is tiny.

Without those safeguards in place it would be trivial for someone to remove the stems, and then suddenly you have beautiful, high quality copies of each separate track from huge artists; and that sort of access to the music is something the labels defend voraciously.

Companies like Harmonix and Activision have every reason to protect those stems as much as they can; the more secure they are the more likely they'll retain access to the biggest artists in music.

Creators of music games have to deal with all the issues of game development with all the issues of the music industry, and that's a hard line to walk. Hopefully Rock Band 4 will one day come to the PC, but for now? I'm happy enjoying my copy of the DJ Hero soundtrack.

Rock Band 4: Behind the scenes with Harmonix