net.wars: Digital Rights Manifesto - the revenge!

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 27 January 2006

Thanks for all the ideas - those of you (lots!) who offered to contribute to the Digital Rights Manifesto. Because last week's column was intended as a "work in progress" – a set of ideas for what rightsholders and technology companies should be allowed to do with digital rights management – it seems worth going through some of the email – and the blog discussion – and adding to the provisions we proposed.

Wendy M Grossman

One provision I'm not going to adopt is the categorical insistence of one reader that all digital rights management is always wrong and should never be allowed.

I certainly dislike a lot of what's being tried right now in the consumer market with DRM, but that doesn't mean that down the echoing corridors of time there will never be a good use for it. My thinking on this is still fuzzy, but there are things that are supposed to expire, such as pharmaceuticals, or bus schedules, and every business (and every family) has material they want to keep private. We are only at the beginning of the grand electronic experiment, and who knows what technology we experience today as hostile will tomorrow be our friend?

One reader proposed that DRM (in which we'll include copy protection) should not be allowed to limit the functionality of the machine it's installed on. It transpires that some computer games come with copy protection that prevents debugging tools from operating; other types have been known to cause system instability or block some functions. Now, you could argue that a developer debugging software should not be using the same machine to play games, but leaving that aside, the reader has a point. You can certainly see the game manufacturer's reasoning: if these tools work, they can bypass the copy protection. But you could compare it to buying a copy of a novel and finding that its presence makes your office photocopier malfunction.

One of the blog posters pointed at several articles written by Ed Felten, [above, right] the Princeton professor who hit the headlines some years back when the record companies tried to block him from publishing the results of his research into DRM. Felten, as always, has made some interesting points. First, that it was inevitable that DRM has become spyware, because exactly like spyware DRM is software that users don't want to install or keep on their computers. Second, a note from as long ago as 2002 to the effect that people – such as the politician in Washington, DC, who effectively declared war on the general-purpose computer (while simultaneously using one) – do not understand that there is no such thing as an almost general-purpose computer. Which of course carries with it the implication that any DRM software you are forced to install (because do you really know any computer user who is eager to buy and install DRM?) of necessity limits your computer's functioning. I might call it robbery, since the act of installing a single CD of music can fundamentally change the nature of the computer you paid for. But this is the world they want. It is clearly not a proportional exchange.

Returning to our wish list of rights, one thing I left out entirely last week is the problem of content, media, and devices. Increasingly, as we load up with computers, laptops, MP3 players, and other gizmos, and all of those converge with mobile phones and digital cameras, we want to be able to transfer whatever bit of content we're currently obsessess with to any device we happen to feel like playing it on at that moment. Conversely, where in the past we had no problem with the fact that we only had one copy of things – books, LPs – if there's one thing the digital world has taught us it's the importance of backups. We want to make safety copies. And one practice common some parts of the software business – providing a licensed user with a replacement copy of the media at a reasonable charge – has never taken hold in the entertainment business, where they've made billions from format changes. Curiously, price is one thing no reader has mentioned.

Giving up those billions when, say, DVD gives way to HD-DVD or Blu-Ray (or some other high-definition successor) is not anything the entertainment industry remotely wants to do, any more than it wants to surrender control over the other functions just described. As discussed here last March, the Digital Video Broadcasting Forum's view of our media future is household-wide content management in a trusted environment (trusted by them, not so much us).

The fundamental problem, I think, is that we're still trying to adapt law and practice that evolved for the physical world to the digital world, and both sides use the physical world as justification for their proposals. We tend to argue in digital media we should have the rights we had with physical items; they tend to argue that they should be able to impose on digital media the limitations inherent in physical objects. We want freedom to copy, share, and access. They want the permanent jukebox, where we pay for every use or access.

As Harry said to Sally, "Somewhere between 15 seconds and all night, there's your problem."

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).