Against DRM

by on August 26, 2004

An important component of Apple’s iTunes Music Store and competitors from Microsoft, Real, and Sony, is “digital rights management.” Under DRM schemes, music or other content purchased online is encrypted in a way that only authorized devices or programs can read it, and tagged with rules indicating who the rightful owner is and what may be done with it. If it works as advertised, such schemes allow copyright holders complete control over how their content is used, even after that content is sold to consumers. In the case of iTMS, Apple limits how many computers are allowed to have a copy of each song, how many CDs with a given playlist can be burned, and which devices I’m allowed to offload my songs to (at present, only iPods).

Many analysts on both sides of the intellectual property debate blithely assume that DRM works, both from a technological and a business perspective. They assume that DRM can prevent unauthorized copying of protected works, and (more crucially, in my view) that doing so makes business sense. I’m going to argue that both of those propositions are wrong.

On the technical side, Bruce Schneier makes the argument as well as I could hope to:

The end result will be failure. All digital copy protection schemes can be broken, and once they are, the breaks will be distributed…law or no law. Average users will be able to download these tools from Web sites that the laws have no jurisdiction over. Pirated digital content will be generally available on the Web. Everyone will have access.

I think this is right, and is probably enough of an argument against DRM by itself. But I’d like to focus on an arguably more important flaw: it’s just a bad idea from a business perspective.

After all, who buys music from the iTunes Music Store? Only two classes of people: those who have moral objections to song-swapping, and those who lack the time or the know-how to access peer to peer networks. So my question is: what exactly is DRM protecting against? Neither type of user is going to take the song he or she just downloaded and upload it to a peer-to-peer network, the former because he has moral objections to doing so, the latter because she lacks the time or know-how to do so.

What makes this stance so incongruous, is that the same record companies that signed onto Apple’s DRM sell CDs with no copy protection whatsoever. I’ve ripped my CD collection to MP3 format, and if I wanted to, I could easily upload several hundred songs to the nearest P2P client without interference.

The fundamental issue here is that what the industry wants to stop is not copying, per se, but distribution. Getting the original copy is the easy part– only one person in the entire world has to either own the CD or crack the DRM, and then that file can be distributed an unlimited number of times to people around the world. Yet DRM does nothing to stop that process– it only works if every single copy of the song is under DRM– clearly an impossibility, at least until the industry stops selling CDs.

Meanwhile, I think customers who do purchase DRM-encumbered music may live to regret it. By its nature, DRM restricts the use of content in essentially arbitrary ways. I haven’t played with Apple’s DRM scheme enough to know exactly what its pitfalls are, but I’m waiting for the first time a Mac user encounters a situation Apple didn’t prepare for–a lost password that can’t be retrieved, or a hard drive crash that leads to lost data and unreadable backups, or a bug that causes iTunes to arbitrarily “de-authorize” users from playing their music. That sort of thing is hard to avoid when you’ve got software specifically designed to limit users’ access to their data. It’s a PR disaster waiting to happen.

Or worse, consider what would happen if Apple were dislodged from its digital music throne. Users who wanted to switch to another provider probably wouldn’t be able to take their paid-for music with them. They’d be forced with the stark choice between sticking with a dying platform or abandoning a substantial investment in digital files. iTunes could turn out to be the Betamax of the new millenium.

The bottom line is that I plan to continue buying my music on CDs and rippping them to MP3 for the foreseeable future. I would love to be able to purchased unencumbered MP3s online, but I have a feeling that it will take several years before someone whacks Apple and the RIAA with a big enough clue-by-four to make that happen. For now, they’re fighting the last battle, desperately trying to wish the peer-to-peer genie back in the bottle. When they realize how completely they lost that one, maybe they’ll give some serious thought to how they should treat those customers who do choose to buy their products legitimately.

And here’s a prediction: by 2020, musical DRM will look as quaint as the failed copy-protection schemes of old PC software in the 1980s look today.

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