Digital Rights & Digital Wrongs

Worryingly, it seems the day of reckoning has arrived. I’m talking about the proliferation of so-called “Digital Rights Management” (DRM) – the base technology for controlling access to digital media. By “arrived” I don’t mean it’s brand new- anyone who’s ever bought music online will have likely experienced it in one form or another. Although there is nothing inherently wrong with copy protection in some form or another (in many cases, it is mandatory), the implementation is almost always flawed. Rather than Apple’s iTunes store liberating users from some of the restrictions of audio CDs, it actually took several steps backwards in some cases- anything bought from the iTunes store can be used on up to 5 authorised computers. Aside from the breach in privacy this presents (Apple could track behavioural information about a person with this system) it also means, for example, that you cannot simply lend music to a friend, and that there is no option to sell unwanted tracks on the second-hand market. As a result, consumer frustration has been slowly mounting.

On the film side of things, the situation has not been much better. The MPAA insisted on a ridiculous “Region-coding” system of DVDs, meaning that a DVD bought in the US could not be played on any player bought in Europe. I used the word ridiculous here, but feel free to replace that with “arrogant” or “xenophobic” – the underlying connotation is that territorial boundaries somehow relate directly to levels of poverty, and by extension “how much we can squeeze Joe Public for the cost of DVDs”, that and the archaic theatrical distribution system: film distributors won’t typically pay for extra prints for non-US audiences (which is why simultaneous international releases are rare, and worse, why if you watch a film outside of the US it’s likely it will covered in dust and scratches). The system is a joke- even to the distributors themselves: I remember at least one studio exec who was over in London complaining that he couldn’t play any of the DVDs he’d brought over for a presentation because they were Region 1.

The promise of digital cinema could have made all of this go away, with the possibility of simultaneous world-wide release dates with consistent picture quality. Instead, it seems to have fallen by the wayside, and things are getting worse. Blu-ray and HD-DVD formats both use new, more complicated DRM schemes to prevent copying. Both of these are already redundant, as a hacker compromised them over a year ago… so all it really does is increase the cost of production and reduce accessibility.

Of course I’m not advocating piracy here, but what I am advocating is a common-sense approach. By using DRM technology on DVDs, you prevent the consumer from doing whatever she likes with it. If I buy a DVD, shouldn’t I be allowed to convert it into a format to watch on my iPod? How about a laptop? What about (as I actually do), converting it to a digital file so it can be stored on a server rather than having to manually locate discs and hope that it isn’t scratched when I want to watch it? Should I be able to load a film into Final Cut Pro to brush up on my editing skills? There are many other examples along these lines, all of which are inevitably answered by the distributors rather than the consumers, and very few are based on solid legal requirements.

The home entertainment market is in enough of a mess now with 3 competing disc formats, and once digital downloads start to become commonplace, things will inevitably decline further. The problem is simply that DRM just doesn’t work the way it has been implemented to date. I once bought a music track by an obscure artist that required me to supply a key every time I wanted to listen to it. And it would only play in Windows Media Player version 9- forget about putting it on an iPod. I can justify needing a key to unlock my home or car, but not one of several thousand music tracks.

Right now, Microsoft is rolling out digital HD-esque video rentals for the Xbox 360 in the UK (it has been available in the US for some time). You can only watch these on the Xbox you downloaded them to. And they self-destruct within 24 hours from when you first hit play (regardless of whether or not you watch it until the end) or 14 days if you haven’t watched it at all. Sure not much different from having to return a rental disk to Blockbuster, but then Blockbuster doesn’t care if you watch it on your xbox or on your friend’s DVD player, and certainly doesn’t expect you to wait for several hours for it to download.

Meanwhile, Apple is launching a similar scheme. And there are dozens of independent sites that offer similar services, each of them with their own form of DRM. Having apparently learnt nothing from the Blu-Ray/HD-DVD war, we’re now about to embark on a war of a multitude of formats, with the consumer the biggest loser of all. And the biggest joke in all of this is that it will do absolutely nothing to prevent piracy, which will be as rife as ever, perhaps more so as people try to find non-restricted sources for their entertainment.

People naturally tend to compare the DRM model to things like CDs, but I think it’s much worse than that. Imagine if food had some sort of DRM. Ingredient A refuses to be used in a recipe with ingredient B because it’s made by a different company. You cannot cook a meal for your spouse because they haven’t paid for it. If something goes past its sell-by date, it self-destructs, regardless of its actual level of toxicity. You don’t store something you’ve bought in your fridge in time, so it self-destructs. You can’t just have a slice of cheese, you have to have the whole thing in one sitting. You can only take the bottle of milk out of a fridge a certain number of times. You cannot drink the milk at your friend’s house. You can only drink the milk out of authorised containers. Some unidentified issue has occured whilst you were trying to eat your sandwich, and you must now spend half an hour with some clueless tech support person trying to resolve it. There was an intermittent power failure and the contents of your kitchen self-destructed. The food supplier is aware of the problem and will hopefully have the issue resolved within 6 months.

Ok. That is extreme. But only because we wouldn’t stand for it. The problem is, when it comes to media, there is absolutely no reason why we should stand for it even though we do. We’ve just grown soft, either silently boycotting it or making do. The irony of all of this is that the type of person who wouldn’t stand for this sort of thing is also the type of person who wouldn’t buy it in the first place, and so the rest of us just quietly accept it. Well we shouldn’t, not as consumers, and certainly not as producers.

Posted: February 6th, 2008
Categories: Opinion
Tags: , , , , , ,

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