As an analyst covering Microsoft’s consumer products, including Windows Media, I’m often called upon to talk about or comment on DRM–digital rights management. This misldeadingly named technology doesn’t give you “rights” to anything–it restricts what you can do with a product you’ve paid for. Most commonly, DRM is used to lock down digital downloads (such as songs on iTunes) so they can’t be played more than a certain number of times, or on a certain number of devices, or after a certain date. As I’ve complained to my boss, DRM is my least favorite subject because I can barely contain my contempt for it–it’s fundamentally flawed on two levels:
1. Technically. Even the folks who work on Windows Media DRM, who are trying to sell the technology to the recording industry, admit that DRM can never be more than a roadblock. As Cory Doctorow and many others have pointed out, that’s because DRM is trying to protect the user against himself! That is, the user is both the attacker (the person who’s not supposed to get the decrypted content) and the recipient (the person who is supposed to get the decrypted content). At some point, the user has to have some way of decrypting the content, and that paves the way for breaks. No wonder it took less than a week to break the copy-protection on Zune.
2. Economically. A CD, cassette, or LP record can be played on any gear. But DRM specifically restricts what you can do–it gives you less for the same price. The most notable example: iTunes songs cannot be played on any portable device other than an iPod; a model that Microsoft is following on Zune. This would make economic sense if there weren’t alternatives. But there are plenty of alternatives to DRM: rip a CD to MP3 and it will never be restricted from playback anywhere. Post the MP3 to a file sharing network, and the game is over.
So now that DRM is beginning to cripple the downloadable music industry, as shown by the collapsing revenues on Apple’s iTunes service, some folks within the record industry are finally acknowledging that DRM is a dead end. Instead, the concept of a blanket license is gaining credence, In this model, a few cents are added to the price of Internet service, digital media software, and digital media hardware, then shared with content owners to compensate them for use of their material. This is already done with blank CD-Rs and cassettes, and a similar method is used for collecting royalties on radio and other performances.
Eliminating DRM is also the first step toward the new mindset that’s necessary for the record industry to accept new business models, incuding the long-awaited “celestial jukebox,” which people have been demanding for years. But the record industry is too scared of losing control of the means of distribution–if everything’s seamless, their role as taste-arbiters and payola-payers is meaningless and no artist worth a damn will work with them.
Death to DRM, the sooner the better. It won’t be mourned.