Musings on DRM

The current MGM vs. Grokster case is rocking the Internet and I wouldn’t be far wrong if I said thousands of people were blogging about this. Basically, the music industry is battling against technologies that enable “sharing” of any sort on grounds that it makes it easy to violate copyright, thus harming their business. Now I’m not going to argue about how devastating it would be if they won, just how absurd their argument is and how useless DRM actually is (and thus how it will harm their sales).

MGM, and the whole music and film industries, would like to make illegal any piece of equipment or software that doesn’t “make a reasonable effort” to prevent people from copying copyrighted materials. Now have a think about the implications of this: your friendly video recorder will be illegal. What about your printer? Your office or school photocopier? Your very own computer? Those, unfortunately, are some of the smaller things that we would be deprived of. The Internet as we know it would become illegal and would have to be completely reworked to build in the restrictions of DRM.

DRM itself has a simple yet fatal flaw: by simple fact that legitimate software can decode DRM-ed files, so will reverse-engineered versions that will simply remove the DRM restrictions. This has already been demonstrated by the wealth of software capable of stripping Apple’s FairPlay DRM scheme from files bought from the iTunes Music Store such as Hymn (hear your music anywhere), DeDRMS (by the famous Jon “DVD Jon” Johansen who cracked the CSS scrambling on DVDs) and PlayFair.

These are capable of simply removing the restrictions and giving you a pristine copy of the digital audio without any loss of quality. If you don’t mind a slight loss of quality, however, it’s even easier: simply play your music and record it on some other device via an analog cable, which simply can’t carry DRM. Job done. The film industry once tried to overcome copying DVDs to VHS tape using a technology called Macrovision, which makes the picture look green when played back from VHS or on an older TV that can’t handle the signals. Every DVD has it (along with CSS), but suffice it to say nobody has any trouble stripping both of those schemes from DVDs nowadays.

So what does all this DRM give us? Well, legitimate customers are treated like thieves and can only do limited things with their purchased (for hard earned cash) music and films, like play them only in certain devices. Want to transfer it to your iPod? Oh sorry, we can’t let you do that. Make a ring tone? Nope, not that either! Who cares if you already paid for it? The “pirates”, however, always crack these things in the end, sometimes minutes, sometimes a few weeks after getting their paws on the stuff and can do whatever they like with the media. So what we have here is a game of cat and mouse that’s a little like Tom and Jerry.

I’m sure I’m not the only one in suspecting that the music and film industries have a hidden agenda in this kind of legislation. We keep hearing that despite the widespread use file sharing software on the Interweb, record and DVD sales keep going up and the companies’ revenues soar. I will put forward that the cash-guzzling media companies only want to sell you the same record several times over (one for your hifi, one for your phone, one for your computer, one for your MP3 player, etc…) to get even richer.

When Napster was all the rage (and free) I downloaded lots of music from it, and what did it do? It made me go out and buy more music. In fact, before Napster gave me free music I really didn’t care about music very much. By simply being able to download a few test tracks from various artists it made me much more likely to actually spend money on music. Fast-forward to today, when my music collection consists of 2317 songs (or 7 days, 12 hours, 29 minutes and 32 seconds of playing time) all but a couple songs of which are legally purchased (costing me an estimate of £1450 at a tenner an album). Without Napster or sharing, I probably still wouldn’t care about music and would not have spent that money.

Now I don’t think that anyone can call me a pirate, but the music industry would be none too hasty to slap that tag on me: I decrypt all of the music I have purchased from the iTunes Music Store. I even got a formal warning from Paramount for downloading films for the same reasons I used to use Napster. Now that I can’t “try-before-I-buy” films, my DVD buying will go down, since I won’t have seen the films that I might want to buy. Ah well, their loss…

2 thoughts on “Musings on DRM

  1. Well, must say I agree with everything. The problem being you have people overseeing this process who are no longer impartial. The RIAA have a huggeeee budget to spend here, and really don’t care about anything. Two prime examples : 13 year old girl being sued for downloading a single song for school of a website : 73 Year Old (if i remember correctly) Grandmother sued for being a major downloader, oh but she didn’t use her computer often, oh and yes she was dead too!

    Until someone manages to restrain these kind of stupid response there will be problems!

    One suggestion I have seen which I think is very interesting is a freely available download but with a limited use on the file, so you can download the film, in a high quality format, and watch it with great sound and picture. This would have a limited run and then expires. Forcing you to go buy it.

    Every system is crackable, but for the majority of internet users this would enable them to try-before-they-buy without problems!

  2. I would certainly agree with your point about trying before buying, I think this is a very valid use for downloading/sharing.

    Another area you haven’t mentioned is TV broadcasts. These can be downloaded easily and the figures show it is becoming increasingly popular to do so. This is classed as infringing copyright, yet if say you download a show broadcast by the BBC and you have paid your licence fee to view the broadcast why does this not entitle you to download it? Surely VCRs, DVD recorders and systems such as SkyPlus would also enable copyright infringement. I think TV episodes/series will be the next type of download to be put under scrutiny.

    As you have said Chris, they are not losing anything from people downloading these files. A downloaded file may not translate into a sale, but it most probably wouldn’t if the file was not downloaded at all.

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