Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Your Media Isn't Yours: DRM as a Culture Limiting Force

(credit to Thomas Hawk, under a CC-Attribution-Non-Commercial license)

So imagine one day you walk into your home after a long day of work and decide you want to read, say, “Harrison Bergeron,” by Kurt Vonnegut. You head into the living room and towards the bookshelf to grab your copy of the excellent short story collection, “Welcome to the Monkey House.” But you are surprised to find that your entire bookshelf is no longer in your home. All of your books have disappeared along with it. The door was unmolested and nothing else has been taken, but for some reason, your entire book collection (and all it represented in spent money, intellectual feats accomplished, and personal development) has simply disappeared.

It sounds like an entirely impossible situation. You’d be as surprised to see your entire DVD collection vanish or your stack of Wired Magazine back-issues cease to be. But the modern media industry wants you to believe that something like this could happen to your entire purchased digital music collection. In fact, the media industry thinks that this is not only reasonable, but that it’s their right.

It sounds like a company is robbing you of your right to own your own property, which can mean only one thing: you can bet digital rights management (DRM) is to blame. I’ve written about this subject before (here), but it hasn’t gotten any better.

Here’s a recent example. In September, The iTunes music store was faced with a possible royalty hike from the music industry. This royalty hike would have been mandated by the federal government, and it would have cost iTunes something like 66% more per track to operate its digital music store. This left iTunes with only one possible course of action: shutting down their music store. It’s true; iTunes was within one government ruling of choosing to no longer operate their successful digital music store, all because the music industry, in concert with the government, could condition rights to that music on higher royalties.

Markets opening and closing because of price fluctuation is nothing new. But one unfortunate side effect of closing down a DRM-controlled music store is that purchases from that store become useless. Crippling the rights management system for a digital music file turns it from a purchased asset into a meaningless pile of ones and zeros.

Nowhere was this more evident than in the late-September WalMart digital music fiasco. WalMart made an announcement that, since it no longer sold DRM-controlled music, they were shutting down their DRM servers. The backlash was instant, of course, because the early adopters of the WalMart digital music store, who still had some DRM-controlled music, stood to be punished for purchasing this music. Because of the backlash, WalMart soon backed down from this radical decision. But from there forward, the ability of companies to literally wipe clean a customer’s digital purchases was not just a slippery-slope possibility. It was a close call.

The list of DRM-crippled technology is long (this blog series details 35 products that sacrifice customer satisfaction for rights management, and this feature counts down 25 reasons why DRM as it exists is bad for the consumer). But there are some success stories in between the horror stories (Mac and Netflix have finally worked together, for instance, to seamlessly integrate the Apple DRM platform with their own Watch It Now service). DRM isn’t an inherently bad thing; it gives creators a way to stop their customers from freely distributing products to the point of saturating the market and rendering the artists’ work meaningless.

Back to the bookshelf analogy. When you buy a book, its inherent physicality makes it impossible to let three people read it at once. The rights management on books is built into the nature of the books. But if we could instantly reproduce those books into identical copies, we’d need a new way to make sure that those copies aren’t replacing purchased versions in the homes of possible purchasers. Being able to manage rights is good.

The way that DRM works now, however, is akin to allowing a band of rights enforcers to break into your home and take all of your books if they start fearing for their profit margins. If the rights granters decide that it’s not profitable to be a book company anymore, they would be able to make all of the books they have created disappear right out of the hands of those that have purchased them. Until DRM is fixed, your digital files are in this kind of danger.

And in a culture that is moving quickly toward nearly entirely digitally distributed media, we suddenly find our access to creative endeavors limited by the will of a small group of media conglomerates. It’s starting to look like our culture itself is under the stranglehold of outdated laws and outdated media companies, and not controlled by our collective will to grow and push forward as a society.

I don’t know about you, but that scares the hell out of me.