The Evils of Digital Rights Management

Digital Rights Management, or DRM is not exactly a new idea, and we've lived with it for some time. Since the release of the DVD and the fact it won't (legally) play on anything except Windows and Mac. However, with the emergence of iTunes as the fastest growing music source, DRM is becoming part and parcel of everyone's life, not just those of us who use Linux or FreeBSD.

Let me first state unequivocally, that I am not in favour of downloading newly-released films or music. I do think the content owners have every right to monetise their efforts and to try and recoup their budgets. It is said, and I have no reason to doubt it, that the reason Hollywood is releasing comic-book movies these days is because they need high spectacle. They need a big cinema release (well, really, they need a big opening weekend) to make their money. The DVD market has largely crashed, and apparently pirating is so rampant, that the box-office fall-off after the first couple of weeks is because people will have downloaded the film online and illegally. The studios are struggling with this global problem, and failing badly. As a film-maker they have my sympathy.

That said, yes I have downloaded music and films. Yes, I have broken the law, particularly the dreaded DMCA. Do I feel guilty? Yes and no.

I will spare you the trite defence so often used, that "Hollywood is producing such rubbish, why should I pay for it?" That is, in itself, rubbish. If you won't pay for the content, then you don't deserve to watch it or listen to it. Simple as that.

As it happens, I used to subscribe to an NNTP server which made a large selection of films and TV programmes available for download. This service cost money - around $10 per month, and I gladly paid. Of course, none of that money went to the copyright holders, and this annoys me in particular (I no longer subscribe to that service). Likewise, I purchased MP3 albums from a Russian site for around $0.99 each track. Again, none of the revenue went to the right place. That site no longer exists, anyway.

So, why the double-standard?

Let me give you an example. I recently wanted to watch "Dog Day Afternoon." I added it to my ScreenClick list (the Irish equivalent of Netflix) and realised it might take weeks to rotate to the top, given the nature of their strange algorithm. I had a look on Amazon.co.uk and they were selling the DVD for £3.97 (around €4.80 or $6). However, it would probably take a week or two to get to me. I decided to use iTunes to download the film. iTunes had it available immediately, and for a price of €9.99 (or $12.50). The file was 1.3GB which took a while to download, but in it came. So, I payed over twice the price of Amazon, but I had it within an hour. That was certainly worth it, because Amazon would have charged shipping, and I probably would have added a book or two (that I don't have time to read), and pushed the price up even further.

However, when I went to play the file, it told me I could authorize it for playback on this computer (and four more). Hmm. Now, it's not that I wasn't expecting this type of DRM, I clearly expected it would be encrypted, but I thought I might be able to burn it to a DVD and play it on a regular television (you know, those things with a remote instead of a keyboard).

By way of reference, I have LPs which are over thirty years old and they still work. They don't need to authenticate themselves to the record player or the speakers. They don't request weekly "Software Updates" and they are not encrypted. If I so wished, I could have made a tape of any album and gave it to a friend. I certainly made compilation tapes for the car (et cetera), but I've never copied an album for someone else. When CDs came along, I ended up replacing a lot of LPs with CDs so that I could play them on modern equipment and in the car (I'm glad no-one ever tried to build a car stereo which played LPs!). In effect, I payed twice for the same piece of music. That, however, was my choice. In theory I could have recorded my LPs onto a CD and not paid twice, and in some cases I did just that, but it was easier to just buy the new CD if it was available. In some cases, such as the Horslips collection, they re-mastered the originals and used modern equipment to clean up the old recordings, so the CDs could be considered to augment the old LPs rather than replace them.

Now, with iTunes, when I buy something it is uniquely locked to this computer or iPod and woe betide anything might happen to either. Some years back, when iTunes first started selling music and music videos, I purchased a U2 music video (mostly because it was directed by a friend of mine, but it's also a good track). Again, I could have recorded this off the air from MTV or their clones, but I didn't. It cost me something like €2.50. As I was working for a different company at the time, that particular download is probably still on that computer, but I have no access to it and no way of re-downloading it. The investment in the content is gone. You may make the reasonable point that it was "only" two euro, give or take, but I refer you to my LP collection.

With iTunes music I can burn what I purchase to a CD, and you can be sure that is step #1 after I purchase music from them. Not so with video. It can only be played on authorized devices.

Earlier, I mentioned that I wouldn't feel guilty downloading something illegally. How do I justify that? Quite simply, because I do not want it encumbered with any DRM protections. Am I willing to pay for content which doesn't have DRM? Absolutely. Not because I want to copy it, but because I want to know that I can still play it in thirty years even if Apple goes bankrupt or my computer dies, or whatever else might happen.

Where I think the studios (and the TV producers) are hurting themselves is not embracing online downloads, properly. For example, CBS now allows US residents to purchase programming which plays on certain computers, but only for a limited time. The opposite should be the case. I would happily accept DRM encryption and all its evil twins, provided it was transient. Why can I not log in to the Apple iTunes store some years later, and for the store to have a record of my purchases back to the year dot, so I can re-download content I purchased in the past? How about giving me the ability to re-download a movie as an unencrypted file, once the film is some number of years old? If the DVD is in the bargain bin, why are we still using DRM online? Dog Day Afternoon, from the example earlier, was released in 1975. Do they really think there is some massive underground market in Dog Day Afternoon pirated DVDs? If I purchased UK newspapers, I'd probably have received it as a "free" supplement by now.

Again, I don't mind paying a reasonable price for content, but I need to know that the content is playable in the future. The DVD took a retrograde step from the VHS tape because of CSS encryption. It won't play on a computer unless that computer runs Windows or Mac OS. Let's not even discuss the abomination of Region Coding, or the fact that I lived in the US and have a collection of DVDs which are now incorrectly coded for the UK and Ireland. I have had to purchase a DVD player which was "region free", which is, according to the DMCA, illegal. So, I've been pushed into the murky "outlaw" side of the street simply to play DVDs which I purchased legitimately while a legal resident of the US. But these pale in comparison to the insane limitations of digital content and DRM.

In order to protect the studios from piracy of content which has just been released to the cinema, my copy of Dog Day Afternoon is viewable only on this and a handful of other computers. I don't have an Apple TV system, and my Media MVP box can't decrypt the file.

I could also make a plausible argument that if a film has been broadcast over "free to air" television in this country, then charging for the downloaded content is almost unethical. Has it become illegal to own and operate a TiVo box? You'll note I didn't mention the Sky+ system as it is a closed system with its own DRM policies. What if I build a system to record programmes off-air and save them on a hard disk? If I have cable channels, then surely Dog Day Afternoon will appear on some channel at some point over the next twelve months, and I could have saved it (encryption-free) for nothing.

When Pirates of the Caribbean 4 is released, I will go and see it in a cinema, even if it is in 3D. I'll pay over the odds for the tickets, and for the popcorn and for the pleasure of getting a headache from the 3D glasses. I could wait until it's on DVD and add it to my ScreenClick list. I could even wait a couple of years for it to show up on TV, but I won't. I'll go to see it in a cinema. I have no problem with the studio release system which will put it into cinemas first at a very high price, then onto DVD for sale only, then onto rental DVD, then cable TV, and finally broadcast television. However, is it fair that after the film has finally been shown "free to air" that I should have to pay almost ten Euro to download it, and that the download will only work on certain computers or at certain times?

I suppose all I've really done is preach to the choir, and asked more questions than anything else. The core issue for me though, is if you attempt to lock down everything and force people through small, monopolistic channels to purchase content, they will automatically seek out other ways of accessing it. Even if those other ways cost money and even if that revenue never makes its way back to the copyright owner. I think the MPAA and the studios would find a lot more sympathy from the general public, and could do a lot more to eliminate piracy, if they applied the same logic of price reduction and general availability for their content, as the content gets older and older.