Is DRM Really All That Bad?

Today, we live in a world where listening to music and watching video has become less of a right and more of a privilege. The advent of Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology has done what content makers have been asking for since Napster went mainstream, the ability to control downloaded content. Why would anyone want to control downloaded content? Well that question is surely easy enough to answer. Just take a look at any technology news site and you are bound to find at least an article or two about someone being sue for downloading music or movies via a “peer to peer” file sharing network. Digital Rights Management has been around for a while now, but it was recently made more public with the success of the iTunes Music Store from Apple. A quick search on sites like Slashdot or Digg will tell you just how the typical geek feels about DRM technology but I will save you some valuable minutes and just let you know now, they mostly hate it. But is DRM technology really a bad thing? I think if used correctly and with the fewest restrictions possible DRM can, in the end, make (almost) everybody happy.

Lets start by explaining exactly what DRM is and the reason for its existence. Content makers have always been trying to come up with ways to protect the products they sell. You have to activate your copy of Windows XP, CD burners took years to get on consumer market for fear of mass copying, and movie companies have been encrypting DVDs pretty much since their existence. The content makers make their money in number of units sold, so when Napster became popular, it pushed pirating to the forefront of the industries’ minds. No longer was it the only elite geeks downloading content, it was everybody. Even the most computer inept person could use Napster to download songs and with the death of Napster companies like Kazza and Morpheus emerged and were just as easy to use. Instead of an extremely small percentage of people downloading everything from software to music, a the general public had almost unrestricted access to downloadable content. The record industry’s solution to this problem, begin suing the average user who is also coincidentally their customers. The movie industry attempted to combat the problem in other ways. They attempted to use technology to beat it by watermarking early DVD pressings of movies so that they could be later traced, they also prosecuted people caught taping movies with handheld cameras. The difference between the record industry and the movie industry was that the movie industry prosecuted people caught red handed breaking the law while the record industry had to rely on guess work of IP sniffing and subpoena internet service providers for logging information.

As you might have guessed, the public has not really responded well to the mass suing of the record industry and also the peer to peer traffic has only reduced by a small percent. So what are the content makers suppose to do? There is obviously a demand for the digital delivery method, but locking the content down to ensure it is not copied runs the risk of alienating the customer base some more. An obvious dilemma came about, a method to allow the user to actually use their purchase but at the same prevent mass copying became a necessity quite fast. Microsoft had a solution first by using certificates to authenticate usage of a file but it was Apple that began using in mass amounts first. Apple struck a deal with the major labels and opened their (then) iTunes Music Store. The DRM restricted the user in couple of ways. First, they could only authorize 5 computers at one time to play a purchased song and you can only deauthorize all your computers once a year. Secondly, you could only burn the the track to disc as an audio file a handful of times (I believe 7 times is the current limit). And finally, you could only play it using your iTunes account. Some of the iTunes restrictions have become more strict as the store’s popularity increased. When iTunes began selling video content, the same restrictions applied.

Digital Rights Management was designed to ensure that the content makers got paid for their work and really there is nothing wrong with that. These people work hard to create the songs, shows, and movies that we watch and they should get paid for their work without question. And I do realize that one can argue how much the musicians actually see from their iTunes sales due to record industry accounting practices, but that really isn’t the point of this article and would actually take up a few articles on it’s own.

So, why do so many people hate Digital Rights Management technology? Well for starters and as discussed, it can limit one’s ability to use something they’ve purchased legally. This is the number one complaint about the iTunes DRM that limits the songs purchased from iTunes to be authorized on five computers at a time. The technology by design is meant to limit certain aspects in order to prevent mas copying of the file. If there was no DRM I could simply turn around and upload my purchased songs to the current most popular peer to peer system. However, at the same time, I should be allowed to play that digital file on any device I choose and on as many devices as I choose. This is what people are up in arms about when it comes to digital rights technology. If I purchase a song from the iTunes Store I can not play that song on my Creative Zen player and I definitely will not be able to playing on Microsoft’s Zune player. At the same time though, I can not play a song I download from Napster or Microsoft/MTV’s Urge Store on my iPod. This is due to the conflicting DRM standards. While Apple has admitted that they actually receive very little compensation from iTunes sales and that the store was really just a way for them to sell more iPods, most people do not really care about that aspect. The geeks that complain on the various tech websites across the net want to be able to play that song on any device and on as many computers as they would like. They think that the content providers are evil corporations that want to hinder their rights to fair use. While one could make some very convincing arguments to prove this, that really isn’t here nor there for this article (again a whole other article in and of itself).

But if we were to listen to just the geeks on message boards, forums, and blogs well that would be like only listening to a democrat or republican on political issues. The truth is that digital rights management serves a purpose and a much needed one at that. As stated previously, one can argue that the content makers are going to far with it and severely limiting the consumer’s use. But DRM’s purpose is real and a happy medium needs to be found between the content makers and the consumer. People should get paid for their works. You would not walk into and artist’s gallery showing and just take the painting off the wall home without paying the artist so you obviously should not be file sharing music and movies. The question when it comes to DRM is that of “fair use”. This is the most important thing because we as the consumer deserve to not be treated like criminals before we actually commit a crime. We should be able to use content we have purchased legally within the rights of fair use side of copyright law and this is where several people question the legality of digital rights management. This is also where the happy medium needs to lie, I should be able to use my purchased content in any way I need to without fear of being sued.

With all the shouting about the DRMed music from iTunes, Napster, URGE, and even other online content providers, the question exists: Are there places where you can purchase digital music without DRM? The answer is there most certainly is and the number one place to do it is, eMusic.com. At eMusic you can purchase and download any of their files and it is completely DRM free. However, if you like popular top 40 music you are going to be a little out of luck. Because eMusic sells files that are DRM free, they are not really liked by the larger record companies, and thus their bread and butter comes from the independent market. Though eMusic’s selection is rather large, it lacks the big names to really draw in the same pull as iTunes, this has not however stopped them from becoming the second most popular online digital music retailer. There is a large market for people who do not want the media they purchase to have digital rights management in their files and eMusic tailors to that crowd.

I still believe that when used correctly to allow the customer to do just about anything they’d want (burn it, copy to second computer, put on mp3 player) then the answer is no, DRM is not all that bad. But if history is any indication, the content makers will not rest until they’ve put as much restriction on the content as possible to ensure the maximum profit from their customers. I think with the way we are headed that eventually content will just be licensed to us. When we buy CDs or DVDs we’ll enter into some kind of agreement that will completely limit our use of that product to one or two devices and to get more we will have to buy another copy. Doesn’t really seem that far fetched does it?

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