NEW TUNE ON PIRACY
The entertainment industry, worried about piracy of digital content, is turning to onerous antipiracy schemes using digital rights management (DRM) technologies. But consumers don’t like DRM and it may be doing the industry more harm than good.
Earlier this month, Apple CEO Steve Jobs posted an extraordinary essay on his company’s website in which he appealed to the music industry to stop insisting that music sold on the Internet be embedded with DRM controls.
DRM, which is designed to curb online piracy, places restrictions on what consumers can do with digital content they have paid for and downloaded. Those opposed to it say it stands for “digital restrictions management”.
But advocates say DRM is essential to protect copyright holders from piracy. The big record companies insist that songs purchased from Apple’s iTunes Music Store and other online retailers that sell downloadable music be wrapped in a DRM layer so they can’t be played on unauthorised devices.
Says Jobs: “If a copy of a DRM-protected song is posted on the Internet, it should not be able to play on a downloader’s computer or portable music device.”
But DRM systems such as Apple’s are drawing heavy fire from consumers and advocacy groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Free Software Foundation. The FSF, led by software maverick Richard Stallman, has been at the forefront of the fight against DRM restrictions and last year launched an anti-DRM campaign under the name “defective by design”.
The campaign’s website says DRM products have been “intentionally crippled from the user’s perspective, and are therefore ‘defective by design’. This campaign will identify these ‘defective’ products, and target them for elimination. Our aim is the abolition of DRM as a social practice.”
Now Jobs, whose company is one of the biggest peddlers of DRM, seems to have had a change of heart. DRM hasn’t worked and may never work to halt music piracy, he says.
“Though the big four music companies require that all their music sold online be protected with DRM, these same music companies continue to sell billions of CDs a year which contain completely unprotected music. That’s right!” Jobs says. “No DRM system was ever developed for the CD, so all the music distributed on CD can be easily uploaded to the Internet, then (illegally) downloaded and played on any computer or player.”
Jobs says DRM offers zero benefits for consumers and the music industry. “If anything, the technical expertise and overhead required to create, operate and update a DRM system has limited the number of participants selling DRM-protected music. If such requirements were removed, the music industry might experience an influx of new companies willing to invest in innovative new stores and players.”
Apple may be ratcheting up the pressure on the entertainment industry but its long time rival, software maker Microsoft, is more than willing to give in to industry pressure and foist ever more onerous DRM schemes on unwilling consumers.
Windows Vista, released last month, includes DRM protections, for example, that will force consumers to upgrade their monitors if they want to watch high-definition (HD) video on Blu-ray discs or on HD-DVD. Only monitors that support a new scheme known as high-bandwidth digital copy protection will be able to play next-generation video at full resolution on computers running Vista. The idea is to stop people uploading pirated HD movies onto file-sharing networks.
But if tech companies such as Microsoft continue in this way, a backlash is sure to follow. Ultimately, it could drive consumers to look at open-source alternatives such as Linux. The free operating system contains no DRM infections.