Aaron R. Davis
Does anyone remember when we were told how much easier computers would make our lives?
I remember people saying, 20 or so years ago, that one day we would be completely rid of all paper files, because everything would be on computer. Now we know that you need hardcopies of everything, because computers can’t be trusted. They’re the only technology on the market where the consumer is meant to just accept the fact that it won’t always work the way it’s supposed to. And even if it does, someone could hack in and change or steal your information. Hardcopies seem more necessary than ever. So instead of making everything easier and saving us storage space, the computer revolution has been, in part, to give us more hardcopies to store.
I think about that whenever I read anything about digital rights management, or DRM.
[Editor’s Note: In case you are unfamiliar with the concept of DRM, it is, according to Wikipedia, “a generic term that refers to access control technologies that can be used by hardware manufacturers, publishers, copyright holders and individuals to try to impose limitations on the usage of digital content and devices. The term is used to describe any technology which inhibits uses (legitimate or otherwise) of digital content that were not desired or foreseen by the content provider.” ]
It’s supposed to be an invaluable step in defending copyrights. The RIAA has been defending it for years, claiming it “serves all sorts of pro-consumer purposes” without actually detailing what those purposes are. If they actually exist, the consumers themselves sure can’t find them, because consumers have been calling for DRM-free music for the last year or so, and more and more labels, music services and retail outlets have been dropping DRM in favor of actually having customers.
Then the bomb fell: earlier this year, Apple announced that all music sold via iTunes would no longer be encumbered by DRM.
Which means it’s dead. DRM is shuffling off this mortal coil, and it ain’t coming back.
Let’s get to the reality of DRM here: it’s not about protecting copyright. I mean, it is, but that’s a secondary concern. It’s really about controlling your access to the music you buy.
It was the same excuse a year or so ago when movie studios wanted to make it illegal for people to copy a DVD onto their portable handheld DVD players. Ridiculous? Sure. But they went for it because they thought they could get away with it. Who cares if machines are made for the express purpose of being able to transfer DVD content onto it? Let’s make it illegal to use them!
The stupid – hilariously stupid – part is that America is so dominated by media conglomerates that don’t seem able to adequately manage all of their holdings. So you have a conglomerate that owns the company that makes the software which makes it possible to rip a movie off a DVD, and also owns the company that makes the hardware that will play the ripped movie, and also owns the movie studio getting upset over the ripping of said movie.
Do you get that? You have Sony Pictures trying desperately to figure out who to sue for taking a DVD of their movie Spider-Man 2 and using their Sony VAIO to upload it to their Sony PSP.
It would be a farce if it weren’t for the RIAA coming down on people with bullshit lawsuits suing for millions of dollars for downloading music.
Have you seen the wording in the FBI warning on DVDs now? They threaten to sue you and/or throw you in prison if you infringe on the copyright, even “infringement without financial gain.” What they don’t tell you is that, legally, you’re allowed to take any and every DVD and CD you’ve ever bought and make yourself one backup copy. They want you to believe that that’s also infringement.
Because what it comes down to, as I said, is controlling your access. Because even if you buy a CD, the company that made it wants you to believe that they still own it, and you’re just leasing a copy from them long-term. Mark my words, if they could figure out a way to make you pay every time you wanted to listen to something, they certainly would. They are trying to find ways to make you pay over and over and over again for the exact same content, and that’s what DRM is all about.
So while it’s adorably naïve of someone like Lars Ulrich to think that downloaders are taking money out of his pocket and not the notoriously low-paying record companies themselves, it’s things like DRM that make buying music legally such a hassle. And I’m not advocating stealing music here. I’m simply saying I understand it. DRM didn’t work because it’s never stopped anyone from “pirating” music; it just makes things more irritating for people who pay for their music only to find they can only play it on certain players and transfer it to CD a limited number of times.
Perhaps the RIAA can find a less inhibiting measure here. But they probably won’t. They’ll probably go back to nuisance lawsuits and trying to lobby Congress to destroy the computers of people who download illegally. Because they’d rather turn everyone into a potential criminal than actually figure out how to manage their copyrights themselves.
They don’t know what they’re doing.
When asked about the RIAA’s view on DRM for an upcoming SCMagazine article, RIAA spokesperson Jonathan Lamy said, “DRM is dead, isn’t it?”
Were they really the last to find out?
Aaron R. Davis lives in a cave at the bottom of the ocean with his eyes shut tight and his fingers in his ears. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.