Why DRM Sucks

In their effort to punish protect consumers, the entertainment industry has resorted to using so-called “digital rights management” technology, known in the biz as DRM, to protect their intellectual property, namely music and movies. For example, DVDs contain an early form of DRM called Content Scrambling System (CSS), which encrypts discs in an effort to prevent people from copying video to their computers or making copies of discs. Seems reasonable on the surface, right? Keep reading.

DRM attached to your movies and iTunes music is the equivalent of putting a lock on the front and back doors of your house. It’s an inconvenience to you and it might keep out the casual thief, but it’ll do next to nothing to stop a professional from getting into your home. But, it goes further than that. This quote from Cory Doctorow says why the goal of DRM is unrealistic:

DRM is based grounded on the idea that you can build a safe so strong, that it’s safe to leave it in the bank robber’s living room.

When DRM is used, the consumer, the very person who paid his or her own money to watch a movie or listen to an album, is treated as the bank robber. In some cases, such as Sony’s recent DRM/rootkit fiasco, the content provider effectively takes the law into their own hands and prevents you from using the audio/video for things that are legally protected under fair use law. It goes even further though. Content providers want to prevent you from doing whatever you want with the DVD player or computer you bought and even reserve the right to say what devices their content can be playable. This is the premise behind the Broadcast Flag technology that TV and movie studios have tried pushing through Congress on several occasions.

What this all comes down to is companies treating their customers as criminals and enemies. These DRM technologies only serve to make playing digital content more confusing and even drive normal people to circumvent copyright law. For example, you can’t legally buy a DVD and then copy the video to your portable device so you can watch it at your convenience. You instead have to either use DVD ripping software which is technically illegal under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act or use a file sharing program such as Bittorrent to download a copy off the Internet – also technically illegal (even if you own a copy of the disc). Pretty dumb, don’t you think?

Unless the average person becomes aware of the fact that their rights are being taken away by the entertainment industry, things are going to continue to get worse. The studios could manage to get their Broadcast Flag act slipped in as a rider onto some other bill, and the music industry might try locking down your music to you as an individual. The Sony case has increased awareness a little, but there’s still a long way to go. Unless consumers make it abundantly clear to corporations that they aren’t the absolute authority, they will become the authority due to our apathy. There are people fighting for your digital rights as I type this, but they won’t be effective unless they have support!

Please listen to the latest O’Reilly Distributing the Future podcast, titled Security, DRM, and Sony, for a good primer on DRM and what it means to you.