The Power of Framing

by on November 21, 2005

Alan Wexelblat has a good point. Policy debates–especially esoteric ones like the DRM controversy–depend crucially on the way they’re framed. For years, the copyright industry has sought to frame the debate as a debate between “property” and “piracy”–with them on the side of property rights. This was disingenuous, because most of their critics were in fact defenders of America’s copyright traditions. We were pro-copyright, we just didn’t like the aggressive expansion of copyright that has occurred over the last decade. But disingenuous or not, the framing was devastatingly effective, because it allowed them to stake out a “principled” position while forcing us to dwell on seemingly nitpicky details.

The recent Sony BMG controversy gives us the opportunity for a little payback: “DRM equals spyware.” Although not all DRM schemes are as horrible as Sony’s software, in a fundamental sense I think this characterization is entirely fair. DRM is all about seizing control of consumer’s computers to prevent them from doing things they have traditional been accustomed to doing, such as listening to their legally purchased music on the device of their choice. It has so far largely escaped consumer notice because the recording industry has been careful to keep its existence below the radar.

For many consumers, their first exposure to the concept of DRM will be through news reports on Sony’s spyware. I hope the label sticks, not just to Sony’s particular software, but to DRM schemes in general. It’s hard to imagine the recording industry winning a debate over whether it should have the power to put spyware on its customers’ computers.

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