What is this DRM thing I keep hearing about?
(this page is part of the Family Guide to Digital Freedom, 2007 edition. Please do read that introduction to know more about the Guide, especially if you mean to comment this page. Thanks)
Definition and examples of DRM
DRM is something that is already having a great impact on how you access and enjoy every form of information or entertainment which is distributed in digital format. Officially, the acronym stands for “Digital Rights Management”, even if many people believe it indicates “Dementedly Ruined Music” or “Disgustingly Restricted Movements, Mirth and Movies”.
Practically speaking, DRM is the set of technologies too often used to abuse copyright, that is to prevent people (or at least to greatly limit their options), from copying, modifying and reusing any digital material, even when they regularly purchased it.
Perhaps the most common example of DRM is the “Region Code” on most retail DVD movies. DRM is why your DVD player or computer won’t play a movie that you regularly purchased online or during a vacation abroad, even if it will never be sold in your home country. Absurd, isn’t it? It is perfectly legal to purchase stuff abroad, not to mention that often it is cheaper and much easier, if you have a computer, than it used to be. For a caring parent it may also be an excellent way to have his or her children practice a foreign language or, in a family of immigrants, to keep alive the culture and memories of one’s native country.
Here’s another DRM absurdity. Affordable homes become smaller every few years, VHS tapes take much more space than DVDs and their quality degrades over time. Any parent whose kids dare play “Winnie the Pooh” every other evening knows that. In spite of this, thanks to DRM, that is the copy protection measures on many recent VHS movies, it is not possible to copy them on DVDs to save a lot of space and make your regularly purchased movies last as long as you need them.
Strictly speaking, these and many other DRM measures could still be easily circumvented. The only problem is that, in order to do it, you must either have software or hardware knowledge, or wait until a programmer breaks the DRM scheme and shares the solution with you. The real problem, however, is that in both cases people are forced to commit a crime, that is to modify in illegal ways their hardware or software, to remain able to use their tapes and DVDs.
Why the industry wants it
The entertainment industry is pushing very hard to make DRM ubiquitous for one simple reason: to make more money. Sure, DRM is first of all an attempt to reduce the number of illegal copies: too many people get almost all their movies and music from illegal copies just because it’s easy, without giving anything back to those who actually created those works. Others make a business of making thousands of copies of a CD or DVD to sell them at much cheaper prices. In both cases there is an obvious monetary loss for the creators.
The second and more important reason to enforce DRM is that it’s the only way to make format shifting impossible, in order to sell the same thing over and over and create many (artificially) different markets. DRM is the opposite to globalization, even if it is advocated by multinationals.
What is bad or useless in DRM
There is nothing wrong in copyright as a way to reward, for a limited time, the authors and performers of creative works while granting fair use. DRM could be good, or at least harmless, if it just ported these things and nothing more to digital works. Most of its current applications, instead, do more harm than good.
First of all, DRM as it is today is just useless against industrial scale illegal copying. It has been said that “DRM doesn’t stop online piracy any more than a speedbump in your driveway slows interstate traffic”.
The reason is that all digits are the same: there is no problem whatsoever to copy all the digits on a DVD (both those constituting the movie and the DRM ones that should “protect” it) on a million blank DVDs and sell them at a very low price. The only real solution to this fact of life is to make computers as we know them today disappear: this attempt is already taking place and is discussed in the chapter about trusted computing.