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Feature Why DRM isn't a bad idea
Maybe it's not such an evil invention after all.
June 22, 2007
While reading an article about why DRM won't ever work a couple passages stuck with me.  From the article:

"DRM is the attempt to control copying on a digital file, or sometimes even to add a restriction on how many times such a file can be copied.  It's usually applied to online music or movies, but it's never sold to the consumer for what it actually is, an added restriction on what can be done with something they've paid for."

I'm not a fan of DRM.  I avoid it as much as possible.  And I have no intent to argue against the technical basis of Jeremy Allison's article, which is DRM will never work due to the inherent nature of the technology.  I agree with that assessment from a technical perspective, but I'm using his article as a jumping off point for some other thoughts, namely, is the concept of DRM really so bad?

"God help us; we're in the hands of engineers." - Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park

First I'd like to remove the "Digital" from Digital Rights Management and think about it in brick and mortar terms.  Imagine someone invents a machine which takes a LEGO brick and makes an exact, pristine duplicate of it.  Now imagine he goes to a store, buys a Millennium Falcon LEGO set, takes it home, duplicates every brick in the set, and gives the duplicate set to a friend.  Do you think LEGO would be very happy about that?

Now let's say our intrepid inventor sells his LEGO duplicating machine on the open market and millions of people purchase it.  Let's say 90% of them duplicate LEGOs for their own use and 10% duplicate LEGOs and give them to their friends.  The 10% are likely in violation of some kind of law (not to mention the inventor selling the machine).  But think about the 90%.  Is it okay for everyone to copy their Millennium Falcon LEGO set and have two Falcons for their personal use?  Is that fair use?  Is it any different than what we're doing with mp3s?

In response, let's say LEGO built into each LEGO brick a way to make it non-duplicable, would they be infringing on the rights of consumers by adding a "restriction on what can be done with something they've paid for?"  I don't think so.  I think LEGO would have every right to do so.

As a commodity which is bought and sold, what makes digital media different from LEGOs?  After all, in reality you can't play with your LEGO Millennium Falcon in your office at the same time your wife plays with it at home and your child shows it at show-and-tell.  No, if you want to do that, you need to purchase multiple LEGO sets.

"Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should." - Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park

Also from the article:

"Claiming that this process can ever be made secure from the people you've just given all this information to is like believing you can create a secure bank vault by drawing chalk lines on the pavement, piling the money inside and asking customers to 'respect these boundaries'."

The author is correct.  Inevitably people would snatch that cash right off the sidewalk.  But just because they can, doesn't mean they should.  And it certainly doesn't mean they have the right to do so.  Just because it's easy does not make it proper.  If we lived in a Utopia of 100% honesty, nobody would touch that money.  They would leave it alone because they were asked to leave it alone and because they understand it is not their money to take.  The only reason the bank needs a vault in the first place is because people are thieves who cannot pass up on the easy fix, the quick buck, and the free ride.

Even while understanding that DRM cannot work from a technical point-of-view, the content providers are in a situation where they want something, anything, to protect their content.  Like the cash on the sidewalk, everyone will grab it if there's no vault.  The vault is needed to protect against the dishonest.  Currently, the only thing remotely close to a digital music vault is DRM (what are they gonna do, stream everything?), so they go with it, no matter how broken it may be.

Meanwhile, we consumers have come to believe it is our right to have as many digital copies of something as we want.  And why do we believe that?  Answer: Because we are capable of making it so.  Because the technology has made it possible.  And because it is possible, we think we should do it.

Continuing the LEGO analogy, one could even make a case against backups being fair use.  You can't "back up" your LEGO Millennium Falcon, nor would you expect to be able to.  If you accidentally melt it on a furnace, tough luck, go buy another one.  So why do we think we have the right to backup our digital assets?  Because it's common practice?  If your hard drive fails, tough luck, go buy another one.  (Okay, it's a borderline argument, but you get my drift.)

I realize nobody wants to pay multiple times for the same content, but so what?  There are many things I don't want to do, but I do them anyway, because that's how shit works.  iTunes has recently been selling DRM-free music at a premium price (successfully, according to EMI).  Which may be exactly the right way to go.  You want the freedom to copy and backup your music files?  Fine.  Pay for it.

- crocoPuffs


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