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Digital Rights Management

Digital Rights Management (DRM) is a term that refers to technologies used by copyright owners to control how their digital data is used. DRM is generally associated with the Recording Industry Association of America (external link) (RIAA) and its members, who employ DRM as a method to control use of their digital music. However, DRM is commonly used to disable the redistribution of e-books and to regionalise DVDs. Notwithstanding the other uses of DRM, here I am going to focus on the use of DRM within the recording industry.

In order to illustrate how DRM works, let us look at Windows Media DRM (external link) (WMDRM), an integral part of Microsoft's PlaysForSure certification program. Microsoft licenses the DRM technology to content providers and to hardware vendors. First, music is encrypted when it is obtained from a content provider. Those music files can then only be decrypted and used on hardware devices that support WMDRM. For example, PlaysForSure tracks will work with a Creative Zen Vision:M, but they will not work with an iPod or with a car stereo.

Like many technology enthusiasts, I am against DRM because it stampedes over fair use - a right under US copyright law that allows me limited use of copyrighted material. The problem with DRM is that it does not allow consumers to use what they legally purchase in the way that they desire. Would it not seem ridiculous if you purchased a book that you could only read in your house or if you had to wear a specific pair of glasses to read it? What makes music any different?

The world was really first mass-exposed to the horror of DRM in October of 2005. Security analysts discovered that Sony BMG was placing surreptitious, malicious software on people's computers without their knowledge in order to protect against copying and to "protect its revenue streams." (Sony Pictures Entertainment US senior VP Steve Heckler) When consumers simply played the "protected" CDs in their computer, the software automatically installed itself and hid itself from the operating system. Furthermore, when Mark Russinovich (external link), the one who initially discovered the malicious DRM software, tried to remove the software, it disabled his CD drive. A few lawsuits later, Sony BMG recalled all of the CDs infected with the software and people saw how far the recording companies are willing to go to "protect" their music.

DRM criminalises all consumers. Copying music for non-personal use is already illegal in the United States. Honest consumers are going to obey this law whether or not their music is restricted by DRM. Honest consumers are also the ones most affected by DRM. Music pirates are going to redistribute and download music no matter what. They will always find a way around any restrictions imposed upon them. DRM has only taken a small chip away at piracy. It does not solve the problem it was intended to solve and, therefore, it only hurts the honest consumer.

The recording industry does have legitimate concerns about protecting their copyrighted material, especially with the increase in music piracy. However, DRM that utilises encryption is not the answer. Rather, a more practical solution would be to tag music. When consumers download music or import CDs to their computer, the name of that person is attached to those songs. When the tagged music is circumvented on the web, it will then be easy to track down the originator. This method will not stop all piracy, but neither does DRM. Rather tagging music allows the recording industry to track down music pirates, while also allowing consumers to use their purchased music however they wish.

Optimally, the recording industry could drop DRM altogether. eMusic (external link) is an online music service that offers 100% DRM-free music tracks that serves as a prime example of how we do not need DRM. Consequently, its musical catalogue mainly contains smaller independent and indie music labels because the major recording companies are not willing to license their music to eMusic. Nonetheless, eMusic has become the second largest online music service, which shows that consumers do not want DRM.

The best solution to replace DRM is to simply be open to better ideas. When the RIAA is done suing dead people(1) and families without computers(2), I hope its members begin to care about the honest consumer and become less money hungry.

  1. In 2005, the RIAA filed a lawsuit against Gertrude Walton, a deceased grandmother in West Virginia, for copyright infringement. They ended up dismissing the case.
  2. In 2006, the RIAA, in a filing against 235 suspected file sharers, filed a lawsuit for copyright infringement against a family in Rome, GA that did not own a computer.