Reporting on DRM Accurately

by on November 17, 2006 · 6 comments

The New York Times has an article on the Zune that puts DRM issues front and center:

Rather than selling songs in a closed-file format like Zune or FairPlay from Apple, eMusic uses the MP3 format, which works on all devices. Though dwarfed by iTunes’ 72 percent market share, eMusic’s 10 percent share (as measured by the research firm NPD Group) beats all other stores, including Napster, Rhapsody and Wal-Mart. And eMusic might do even better if it offered songs from the four major record labels–EMI, Sony BMG, Universal and Warner–that control about 75 percent of the music market.

Aside from some small experiments, the majors do not use the MP3 format because it lacks the digital rights management, or D.R.M., technology that protects copyrighted works by preventing unlimited duplication.

It’s great that they’re putting the spotlight on the problems created by DRM, but that last sentence is highly misleading. It’s true that DRM is intended to prevent unlimited duplication, but it seems to be stretching the truth to flatly state that it succeeds in doing so. At best, I think you could say that it slightly delays unlimited duplication because it sometimes takes a few hours before someone goes to the trouble of cracking their copy and uploading it to a peer-to-peer network.

Maybe this is nitpicking, but I think careless statements like this are a big part of why pointless policies are perpetuated for so long after it becomes obvious that they aren’t working. It reminds me of the various “anti-terrorism” measures such as confiscating water bottles at airports. The press will blithely report them as “anti-terrorism” measures because that’s what the Bush administration calls them. That, in turn, reenforces the public impression that such policies prevent terrorism, despite the fact that there’s little or no evidence that they actually do so.

Likewise, reporters parrot the recording industry’s claims that DRM reduces online piracy, despite the fact that there’s little or no evidence that it actually does so. It’s probably too much to hope for the reporter to add a sentence that most computer security experts disagree, but at a minimum, they ought to phrase it as “the recording industry claims” that DRM protects copyrighted works. That would alert the reader that the proposition was controversial, and hopefully cause more readers to give the matter more thought.

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