448 - Why-DRM-Currently-Is-Broken

I read John Gruber’s article about DRM — digital rights management — with interest. In it he looks at a record industry spokesperson’s quote and comes to the conclusion, rightly I believe, that the record industry wants there to be an interoperable standard for DRM because the record industry wants back control of music. This piece started me thinking about what the record industry should really be aiming for with an application of DRM.

Firstly, a small introduction to DRM and why I believe no one should currently buy DRM-encumbered music. DRM allows a song-provider to technologically enforce what you can and cannot do with a particular song. You might not be allowed to burn a song to a CD, for example, meaning you can only listen to it on your computer or iPod-like device. I do not believe that these restrictions, given a sensible level of “fair use”, are a bad thing in themselves.

(Of course, many of the restrictions that can and currently are being placed upon a song are very draconian and amount to suggesting the people that buy music are criminals.)

Given that I don’t think DRM is necessarily a bad thing, why do I believe that, as of now, people should not buy DRM-encumbered music? Two reasons, really. As suggested, current restrictions are remarkably restrictive. The second is that there is currently no interoperable DRM standard; that is, currently music bought from one provider cannot be played in software from another provider. For example, music bought from the iTunes music store cannot be played in Winamp or Windows Media Player. Likewise, iTunes cannot play music bought from Napster. This strikes me as a ludicrous state of affairs — I don’t think that where I choose to buy music from should restrict my choice of software to listen to it. Restricting the use of music in this way forces me to download music illegally that I cannot buy easily on a CD.

(To put this another way, if you buy music from a Windows Media using store, you will not be able to play that music if you decide to buy a Mac. Or, perhaps worse, you might not be able to play your music if the music store you bought it from goes out of business, as your license to play the music cannot be validated.)

The easiest way to do solve this problem, of course, is not technological, but instead to trust people and throw out DRM. While the music industry believes we are all champing at the bit to give away for free all that music we just payed for (I don’t follow this logic either), this is unlikely to happen. The industry could try to think a little differently about how to solve their main problem: mass piracy via peer-to-peer file sharing networks.

Most people use file sharing networks to find other people’s music rather than to share their own music: it is a side effect of the desire to find music that places their music open for other people to find. I think that DRM should be viewed in a different way: as a way to stop people inadvertently sharing music. Put another way, rather than trying to define what people can do, define what they cannot. I think that people who want to share their music collection will not buy DRM-protected music, so why penalise the people who will buy it?

Making it hard for people to accidentally share music would reduce the amount of music shared exponentially because the majority of shared files are not intentionally shared. Therefore, a technological measure that has the effect of preventing purchased music being added to a peer-to-peer pool would start to kill off file sharing networks as a tool for mass music piracy; there would be less music available on the network. This would drive people towards buying music to download, as purchasing would become the easiest way to find it.

(Of course, this would leave peer-to-peer networks still able to share normal files; the technology itself is very useful, especially bittorrent.)

Following on from this, the main problem that needs to be solved is preventing purchased music from turning up on file-sharing network, or, at least, preventing the music playing when shared via a file-sharing network. Further to this, many of the possible current restrictions imposed by DRM schemes, such as preventing burning of tracks to CD or restricting the number of portable devices they can be played on are pointless when working towards the goal.

Focus on preventing the music, wherever it ends up by legitimate means, being playable when transferred by illegitimate means. If people learn the majority of music they download from Limewire is un-playable, they will soon decide purchasing it legitimately is easier. The task here is to prevent mass piracy rather than stopping people sharing music with their friends, isn’t it?

In conclusion, I’ve tried to show that the current focus of DRM-technology is wrong, and only succeeds in punishing people who want to buy music rather than share it. Developing an open DRM standard that helps to prevent sharing over peer-to-peer networks, but is otherwise liberal in what it allows you to do, should be the priority of both the technology providers and the record industry.