Using MP3s Responsibly

by on January 29, 2007 · 2 comments

As the recording industry flirts with releasing music in MP3 format, Ed Felten points out that the labels have become a victim of their own twisted rhetoric about DRM technology:

Of course the industry won’t sell music “with no copying restrictions” or “unrestricted”. The mother of all copying restrictions–copyright law–will still apply and will still restrict what people can do with the music files. I can understand leaving out a qualifier in the headline, where space is short. But in a 500-word article, surely a few words could have been spared for this basic point.

Why did the Times (and many commentators) mistake MP3 for “unrestricted”? Because the industry has created a conventional wisdom that (1) MP3 = lawless copying, (2) copyright is a dead letter unless backed by DRM, and (3) DRM successfully reduces copying. If you believe these things, then the fact that copyright still applies to MP3s is not even worth mentioning.

The industry will find these views particularly inconvenient when it is ready to sell MP3s. Having long argued that customers can’t be trusted with MP3s, the industry will have to ask the same customers to use MP3s responsibly. Having argued that DRM is necessary to its business–to the point of asking Congress for DRM mandates–it will now have to ask artists and investors to accept DRM-free sales.

The phrase “using DRM responsibly” calls to mind an analogy to “drinking responsibly.” In particular, most drivers would find it intolerably paternalistic for their cars to be fitted with breathalyzers that prevented the car from being started up if the driver was intoxicated. Only a minority of drivers drive drunk, and so it’s unreasonable to impose the inconveniences of a breathalyzer system on everyone.

Given that driving drunk is a much more serious crime than sharing a copyrighted song, why should consumers be any less angry that they’re being subjected to a similarly intrusive scheme with respect to the music they purchase. The vast majority of people who buy music online have no intention of engaging in mass piracy, yet each and every one of them is subjected to the indignities of DRM restrictions.

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