DRM or Digital Rights Management is the bogey man of the digital age. Proponents push the agenda then fall over themselves tracking back; opponents view it as the equivalent of an Internet nuclear winter. But with piracy on the rise and “hactivism” moving the piracy agenda forward, how do companies and individuals that invest in creating digital media get a return on their investment? Is DRM, by any stretch of the imagination, something that can help in this challenge? Let’s start by looking at a brief summary of DRM.
DRM has seen a number of evolutionary changes of the year. Having started as a means of locking digital content within various media, DRM was the music industry’s equivalent to putting a lock on your door to prevent thieves from making away with your stuff. They would then give you key (if you played nice) and give you access to that content. But this backfired because it became a huge impediment to legitimate users. It is like someone selling you a house and giving you the key to only the front door. You cannot unlock the back door to step into the garden; you can’t access the washroom or kitchen, etc. This is obviously a huge nuisance and so this did not work.
They next tried to implement DRM as a device-based lock. Lock the content to only specific devices that had the key rigged in the works. Again, this was like selling someone a car that would only drive on certain roads. Users were also not thrilled with this. Then came server authentication and the latest being trying to bake DRM-like features into the core of HTML5. The quest for DRM has been championed and abandoned by all the big media companies at almost an equal rate. Publish today with DRM, throw out DRM tomorrow and sell DRM-free media. But what is the solution? Can DRM work?
DRM is a very solid argument in the defense of intellectual property rights. They must be protected and I’m pretty sure no one will argue with this. For DRM to work, however, it must protect the content against piracy while simultaneously affording the owner certain rights to the content. This is where the licensing angle comes in. When you are licensed content, you have every liberty with it except to profit from it through redistribution. It’s like renting a house and being allowed to do everything but resell or sublet the house. This makes sense.
The DRM comes in the form of a restriction in copying and redistributing the content. Of course this is difficult to enforce but this is the only point that DRM would make sense. If you want to multiply the content, then it becomes impossible (not quite). So, a possible implementation would be to make it impossible to copy a song you download more than say ten times. After ten times, the song either cannot be copied or transferred or deletes itself. This exists in the realm of sci-fi but perhaps it would work.
The argument against DRM is simple; people should be able to do whatever they want with the stuff they buy. If you cannot resell your used vehicle, will you ever buy one? Music is of course different because the quality does not depreciate over time. But the argument still holds, if the prototype of the content I bought, the very first version they built, still sits in pristine condition somewhere, why I shouldn’t I sell my “aged” version?
After all, it’s not like I will build a business selling Eminem records on iTunes. I need the freedom to do whatever I want with what I buy. I bought it after all, right? If you want to argue along licensing lines, then perhaps what music companies should do is replace the “Purchase” button with a “License” button. This way, I’d be aware of the restrictions. DRM does not therefore solve the challenge of piracy because if I do not like all the restrictions, I will simply go elsewhere and download a DRM free version (if it exists).
DRM as a deterrent for piracy has been shown to work less than satisfactorily. DRM as a means of managing restrictions is not the way to go. Perhaps a better model would be to create an over-supply of cheap and easily accessible content, which will drive the demand for pirated content. DRM in this way would become obsolete. In the end, DRM belongs in the archives of the obsolete technologies of the world. New and more effective means of managing IP rights should be sought and implemented instead.
Guest post by Scott Ryan, an emerging technology and arts writer, writing for Morris Brothers Music Store.