Removing User Information from iTunes purchased songs

Update 31 Jul 2014

Poking around today, I have discovered that no matter the tools I use, Apple has embedded a proprietary tag set into its Apple Store purchased AACs. I found this out by trying my test again and finding that even after I completely erased all tag information from the Apple AAC – the user information persisted when loaded into iTunes. I used my tagging program of choice Kid3 and hit “Remove” which erases all tags from an audio file… However, when I loaded the stripped AAC back the file into iTunes, my user information was still there. Now you might be thinking, as I did, perhaps this information is cached? Nope, even after I deleted the file from iTunes, retagged it, and added it back into iTunes… my personal information was still there. I can recreate the problem in every audio editing program – Fission, Tagger, Tagr, Subler… no program even displays the additional tags correctly aside from Kid3. But all signs point to Apple having added a secondary set of tags which all programs miss entirely. You might think you got rid of the extra tags, but no dice – they are still there.
So, the only sure file way to remove the DRM from an iTunes purchased file is to re-encode it. Sad, but true.
Personally, I find this disheartening news and intend to cease buying from the iTunes store indefinitely. While they have created an open DRM format which allows users choice on how they use their files, which is commendable, the files are not DRM free. I’m simply not interested in supporting companies who support DRM. The End.

Update: 28 Jun 2012

Recently I found a great Mac utility that does the whole tag stripping thing from Apple’s purchased music much more effectively. The Tagger ($29) is a Mac utility which can edit and remove any embedded tags from MP3s or AACs. It works seamlessly on most files and very quickly does the process for multiple files. It’s biggest issue to my mind is its price. $30 for a glorified tag editor is… well… very high, but if you are editing masses of tags, it can be worth it. If the dev halved the price, I think they would be MUCH more successful.

Now, I am a fan of Apple’s music store. It’s the easiest way to buy music, the selection is great, and the quality is f-amazing. The only thing I’m not a huge fan of is my username and e-mail address being embedded in the audio files. (to see this screen head to FILE > Get Info)

To my mind anything other than the purchased audio accounts for DRM and I don’t want it. While I’m all for legal downloads, I’m not into being tracked, no matter how legal you make it. Lucky for you and me the account information is actually embedded at the last moment of the iTunes purchase and download process. Which means it isn’t hard embedded, it’s only some additional meta-data. I will have to mention, at this point, that this process only works on iTunes Plus (.m4a) files downloaded from the iTunes Music store. It will not work on older iTunes Protected files (.m4p) although protected files can be upgraded in the iTunes music store to iTunes Plus for a nominal fee.

To remove the meta-data, you need an program which doesn’t recognize the additional meta-information and a way to save the audio losslessly. The program that fits the bill is Rogue Amoeba’s amazingly versatile Fission ($32). It’s a lossless audio editor for the mac and it’s a seriously wonderful tool that I use on a daily basis for editing audio files and creating ringtones. To remove the meta-information, open the iTunes Plus file and re-save the audio.

That’s it. It losslessly saves a .m4a with no user information embedded and best of all, it doesn’t recode or transcode the audio (as with some other burn a CD and reimport methods). It is exactly the same quality coming out as it went in.

A few things you might notice about this process is that the file size will drop after saving. Not entirely sure why. Perhaps removing all that extra meta-data cleans house a bit. You will also notice that the bit-rate for the file will go from 256kbps to something else. This is normal and because Apple, in an attempt not to scare it’s users with different  variable bit-rates from the encoding process, makes every file share the 256kbps regardless of it’s true bitrate. Lastly, Fission adds 0:00.032 of audio to the track? While odd, this shouldn’t actually effect the sound, as it’s 0.03% of a second, so unless you have crazy dog ears, you wont hear it.

Best of all, now you have an audio file that has none of your private data attached, which in my books is truly DRM free.

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