Spoutin' Off: DRMs have little effect on privacy

By Michael Rau

February 12, 2007

Well, as he’s been known to do from time to time, Steve Jobs managed to open up a can of worms a few days ago. Since it relates to a pet peeve of mine in terms of popular technology, I feel like I have to say something.

I’m referring, of course, to Jobs’ pronouncement calling for music distributors to abandon their requirements mandating the use of digital rights management schemes. ‘DRMs’, as they’re known protect the material created by the artists they represent from piracy and other forms of illegal distribution (at least in the small minds of record company executives)

The record companies turned around the next day, and basically said “you first”, challenging Jobs to allow the licensing of Apple’s “FairPlay” DRM system to manufacturers of portable music players other than the iPod.

Jobs balked at this idea, saying it would open the underlying technology in FairPlay to hackers, thus implying that other device manufacturers would fail to keep Apple’s secrets secret. Their position is that if the record companies are going to require the use of a DRM, they want theirs to be proprietary and unencroachable.

If I were a lawyer, I could make strong arguments on behalf of both of these positions, but it’s so much more fun to take them apart.

First, lets talk about piracy – particularly what it is and isn’t.

Professional piracy is the act of taking an intellectual property – in this case, music – making multiple copies, and then selling them, ostensibly for profit. File sharing – which record companies hate as much as professional piracy – is when someone makes a file containing intellectual property and makes it available for free through file-sharing software such as Bit Torrent or Gnutella.

Doing either of these is wrong. Period. Artists deserve to be compensated for providing you with the fruit of their talent. But the problem with DRMs is and always has been that they treat everyone like criminals.

In the digital age, if I buy a song, I don’t perceive that I’m buying a product, but rather the right to the unlimited use of that product. I don’t believe, once that money has changed hands, that anyone has the right to dictate to me the manner in which I choose to consume that product.

If I thought that DRMs did any good at all, then maybe I could cut the record companies some slack, but in the scheme of things, they’re really useless.

First off, all that has to happen is for one person on the whole of the World Wide Web to post an unprotected media file online, and bam – it’s immediately available to hundreds of millions of people online. So much for that protection. I guarantee you that I can go online right now and find an unprotected digital version of most any song you can imagine. This is also known as the cow already being out of the barn.

People who don’t care about the law and don’t care about the rights and livelihoods of artists laugh at DRMs. What in the world makes anyone think that a pirate is going to bother with going through an online store and actually paying for the initial product, anyway? That’s just silly.

So the lesson here is that DRMs have virtually no effect on piracy and file sharing, and make things inconvenient and sometimes tedious for legitimate consumers. Record companies should stop requiring the use of DRMs.

Regarding FairPlay and Jobs stated attitude regarding it’s licensing – that’s pretty silly, too. Many manufacturers have acquired licenses for the Windows Media DRM so their players can process files encoded and sold as protected Windows Media files.

Now, maybe I missed something, but I’ve heard of no leaks from those companies of the Windows DRM to hackers. Maybe Jobs thinks his is so much better, hackers would want to acquire the FairPlay coding more than that of Window Media DRM, but that’s a stretch.

I’ve said this before – I will never buy a digital media product that has a DRM scheme attached. No exceptions. I also want to remind everyone that if you share my distaste for DRM protected music, you do have an alternative.

I continue to be a fan of eMusic. They sell digital music in the dirt-common MP3 format, which by international convention is free of any DRM schemes. Granted that MP3 compression algorithm isn’t as efficient as either Apple’s AAC format, or everyone else’s Windows Media format, but to be able to take the song I just bought and playing it wherever and however I want is worth the difference.

So who’s right and who’s wrong? Both and neither.

I agree with Jobs that DRMs are a bad thing in terms of personal and artistic freedom, but I also agree with the record companies in so far as if DRMs are going to be around for a while, Apple should license FairPlay so people who buy music from the iTunes store can play them on devices other than iPods.

Michael Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, go to http://dailypress.asoundidea.com.

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