Ruining DRM for everyone

The Great Sony BMG DRM Disaster of 2005 has already been written about ad nauseum. But it's just too tempting to resist. As a technology fan, for me it has been nothing short of fascinating watching this train wreck unfold. So please bear with me, because a column on this is almost inevitable.

Apart from the sheer audacity of it all, one reason the story still has legs is because it's a densely layered one that raises any number of issues and questions surrounding both Sony's actions and the very nature of copy protection and DRM. One potentially big issue that is pertinent to anyone in the content business and anyone currently in or hoping to get into the content delivery business - like telcos eyeing IPTV or cellcos offering music download services - is what this means for DRM across the board. It's not likely to kill off DRM, of course, but it could affect the way that it is implemented in the future.

Even before the Sony story broke, the issue of DRM for digital media was becoming a contentious one, at least among early-adopter Netheads. For them, the crux of the issue is how much control the consumer has over media that he/she has paid money for.

It's not a hard concept to appreciate. Most of us have grown up in an analog world where media is sharable, whether that includes lending records and videotapes to friends or dubbing mix tapes. When music companies say that users must treat digital media differently because it's easier to pirate, they're asking users accustomed to sharing media any way they like to suddenly accept numerous restrictions that are inevitably going to appear unreasonable.

Apple and Microsoft, for example, have become increasingly criticized for respective DRM limitations for iTunes and WMA that essentially lock the user into a particular format. For current music DRM files dictate that if you change your OS (say, because of spyware that Sony installed on your hard drive) a certain number of times, you can no longer play any of the music files you've downloaded, even if you paid for them. The same logic is also behind 'features' such as being unable to transfer music files from iPod to PC, or the Xbox 360 allowing you to store music only of you rip CDs direct onto its hard drive.

As BoingBoing co-founder and anti-DRM activist Cory Doctorow has said numerous times, there is no consumer market demand for such 'features'. And yet that's what media consumers are getting - DRM with little or no thought regarding the actual end-user who is supposed to buy all this content.

No demand for restrictions

DRM proponents have argued that most users won't care all that much in the long run, once they adjust to the new DRM paradigm. Maybe. But thanks to Sony, that has changed. It may not matter to consumers that most DRM solutions don't destroy your computer. Now they have to worry about which ones do. DRM is a matter of trust - but if consumers don't trust DRM, will they buy content that comes with strings attached‾ And more importantly, who will they blame when the strings get too tight‾

This is a very important question for anyone looking to get into the content delivery business, because the demand for DRM is coming from the content producers who will be filling your pipes and portals with content to download and sell.

 

Many DRM solution vendors already design their products to set the controls as tight and Draconian as a content producer might demand. If you want to set a pay-per-listen policy where the user downloads a song and then has to buy a new decryption ticket every time they want to replay it, you can. Or, if you want to allow unlimited plays for a month but if the user forwards it to a friend, they have to pay to unlock it, you can do that too.

The question now is, do you really want to‾ Granted, you may have no choice. The catch is that if it all goes haywire, your customers are not going to blame Sony. They're going to blame you.

John C. Tanner Global technology editor ([email protected])

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