DRM versus Artists’ Control

by on December 19, 2005

John at the Commons Music Blog has an artist’s perspective on the dark side of digital rights management technology. He highlights three reasons why he doesn’t use DRM to “protect” his content. I thought the first reason was particularly on point:

I detest not having control.

“But,” say some, “DRM gives you control, not takes it away.” Silly rabbit.

DRM is not something that can be grabbed from the aether and implemented. It’s run by a series of companies, each with different platforms and technologies implementing themselves in various ways…

If I sold someone an MP3, I am quite certain that they will be able to use that MP3 on almost every computer, and in pretty much every portable device on the market. If I sell an Apple iTunes DRM’d file, that plays in iTunes, on a few cell phones, and the iPod.

Speaking of Apple, they are currently in a dispute with the record industry to allow different pricing structures and usage terms, depending on the songs. They want Apple to share its DRM so that a multitude of devices (not just the iPod) will work with it. The labels can’t force them, because the songs that millions have bought are intricately tied to Apple’s DRM, for which they fought viciously. Now, they’re stuck. They’ve lost control.

This is an important point. DRM almost never gives artists control of their own work. Hell, DRM rarely gives record labels or movie studios control over the work they publish. Rather, DRM empowers third-party technology companies–Apple, Microsoft, Real, TiVo, the cable industry, etc–who didn’t produce the content their DRM “protects,” yet thanks to DRM they have the final say on how the content is used.

Obviously, no one forces artists, labels, and studios to sign deals with the likes of Apple and Microsoft. But given all the rhetoric about how DRM is about protecting artists’ rights, it should give us pause that, in practice, DRM almost never gives artists meaningful control over how their content is used, and that, in fact, some of the restrictions placed on consumers by DRM are directly contrary to the interests of copyright holders.

Think about it: when you purchase a song on iTunes, you’re pretty much only allowed to listen to the song with iTunes or an iPod. Who does that benefit, the artist who recorded the song, the label that distributed it, or just Apple? As I’ve said before, the recording industry is being taken for a ride.

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