The State of DRM: Dying Out - or Getting Worse?

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The State of DRM: Dying Out - or Getting Worse?

Post by shanaya on February 7th 2011, 8:38 pm

The State of DRM: Dying Out - or Getting Worse?

Digital Rights Management (DRM) has been the subject of several editorials in this newsletter over the years and it's always a controversial one. Indeed, I know many people who have refused to upgrade from XP to a newer operating system because of the fear that there would be more DRM "protections" in later versions of Windows, which they wouldn't be able to circumvent.

Software and hardware vendors seem torn in two different directions when it comes to DRM. They want to appease the content creators and copyright holders who demand more and better measures to protect their works from being copied and distributed without their permission. But they also want to please their users, who don't want their devices, operating systems and applications crippled by DRM mechanisms that often prevent them from performing perfectly legal tasks.

That means you get an interesting mix from companies that are trying to juggle the need to cater to the two opposing sides. So, for example, Microsoft left the ability to easily take screenshots out of Windows 7 Phone, and their director of mobile communications was quoted as indicating this was, at least in part, because of copyright issues:

At the same time, the desktop version of Windows has long had the capability of capturing screenshots by simply using the PrtScn key, and the most recent versions (Vista and Windows 7) include the very handy Snipping Tool that makes it even simpler to copy a specific part of the screen. This seems a bit contradictory. After all, if taking screenshots of the phone display creates a copyright issue, couldn't the same be said - to an even greater extent - of capturing the desktop display?
When Windows 7 first came out, there were stories about its draconian DRM technologies and how it would lock you down and prevent you from doing anything. Yet those who do such things seem to have little trouble installing their warez software and playing their torrented music on their Windows 7 computers. Peter Bright over on ars technica attempted to set the record straight with this article:

Meanwhile, some have noted that Microsoft seems recently to be taking a kinder, gentler stance in its approach to "jailbreakers." Whereas Apple went to court to try to make it illegal to jailbreak the iPhone, Microsoft has met with the hackers who wrote the first Windows Phone 7 jailbreaking tool, to discuss supporting the installation of so-called "homebrew" apps (those that haven't been approved by Microsoft).

Another positive development occurred last summer, when the Library of Congress issued new rules pertaining to exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). One of these exemptions made it clear that jailbreaking or rooting a phone is not illegal under the DCMA (although the ruling did nothing to prevent the vendor from voiding your warranty if you do it). This was welcomed as a loosening of the provisions of the DCMA.

On the other hand, some DRM opponents see an ominous trend in the current administration's hiring of former Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) attorneys. The RIAA, of course, is the organization that's famous (or infamous) for suing nine year old children and ninety year old grandmothers for downloading songs.

Some have noted fewer RIAA lawsuits in the news recently. What's up with that? It seems their spate of lawsuits against individuals have actually cost them more than they collected. The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), of which RIAA is a leading member, says the taxpayers should be the ones to pay for fighting piracy and says 2011 is the year when governments can "turn the tide" by adopting "three strikes" laws.

RIAA may have revisited its lawsuit strategy, but they were in the news again recently, when their attorney sent a letter to the chairman of ICANN, the organization that manages Internet domain naming, to object to ICANN's plan to create a new .music top-level domain. RIAA seems to think the existence of such a domain name will somehow encourage music piracy.

RIAA and other anti-piracy organizations justify their hardline approach by pointing to studies such as the recent one done by a firm called MarkMonitor, which said illegal traffic on 43 file sharing sties generated 53 billion

In an interesting aside, The U.S. Supreme Court last month rejected a request by the major music companies to dismiss a lawsuit brought against them that alleges they engaged in price fixing for digital music. It appears RIAA members don't find it to be quite as much fun to be the ones being sued, rather than the ones doing the suing.

Meanwhile, there is evidence that - at least in one market - Internet piracy can actually benefit sales. Japan's Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry (RIETI) did a study that showed that anime programs posted on YouTube boosted sales of the DVDs.

Another reason DRM has become less high profile may be the changes in content consumption models. Amazon was a leader in offering non-DRMed songs for sale at a low price (99 cents) and making them easy to buy. Other copyrighted content has also become much easier to buy (or rent) over the years. For example, early copy protected ebooks were accessible only on the device on which you downloaded them. If that device died, or the file got corrupted, you were out of luck. Now, with software from Kindle, Barnes and Noble, Sony and other ebook vendors, you buy a book once and you can access it from any of your devices: computer, laptop, tablet, phone or dedicated reading device. People are far more willing to spend money for digital content if they know they won't have to buy it again if something happens to that file.

Another change in the business model is that instead of having to buy individual songs or movies, you can now subscribe to "on demand" services whereby you get to listen to or watch whatever you want by paying a monthly fee. Netflix made this model successful and other companies are following suit.

This doesn't mean DRM is going away. In December, Google invested $150 million to acquire Widevine - a video technology company that specialized in DRM (financial analysts are now saying they vastly overpaid for the company). For purposes of this article, the big question is: How does Google plan to use that technology?

What about the video gaming industry? There's a mixed bag there. While it was announced that Capcom's DRM was returning to the PlayStation 3, which will require users to log onto the PlayStation network each time they play the game, there was also an announcement that Dragon Age II will use lighter, less oppressive DRM technologies.

We're also hearing that Nintendo's latest handheld, the 3DS (which comes out in March), is going to include intrusive DRM.

Meanwhile, the "movement" against DRM is becoming more organized. Users of file sharing services at the Lift11 conference in Geneva put together a "Digital Media Delivery Manifesto" that outlines their demands from the media companies - including pricing and usability issues - in exchange for the end of piracy.

So tell us what you think about the current state of DRM and copyright protection in the digital world. Are things getting better - or are they about to get a lot worse as governments get more involved? Is no DRM at all the only acceptable solution, or do you not mind DRM as long as it's reasonable and easy to deal with? Should content owners and providers drop DRM altogether? If they did, would they see their profits go down - or would they go up (or stay the same)? What do you think Google has in mind to do with the Widevine technology? Is the video game industry shooting itself in the foot with DRM? Has Microsoft softened its stance on piracy? Is the RIAA really becoming kinder and gentler - or just giving up on a money-losing proposition? We invite you to discuss this topic in our forum at
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