Digital Rights Management

In an article titled Music lovers caught in DRM battle, on the BBC News web site there is a quote from one Brad Duea, the president of Napster, where he states:

So we try not to view the DRM as something that limits consumers but instead enables them now to take all their music on the go.

I don’t know where he’s been living, but the last time I checked my legally purchased (on CDs), but non-DRM’d music worked just fine in my portable music player (an iPod). I don’t see how adding DRM would enable me to do anything more with that music than I do today. I can see how it would let me do less…

Now, as someone who works with intellectual property (both as a software engineer and as an amateur photographer), I do not agree with people using IP without permission (a license). There are a few problems with DRM technology though:

  1. When the licenses become more restrictive (as many software licenses are today), then people will find ways around them. If music becomes as restrictive as software, which it would seem the DRM technologies are moving in the direction of, then more people will circumvent them and piracy will increase, not decrease.
  2. DRM technologies will only restrict what honest paying customers can do; those intent on pirating the music will always be able to get around the DRM.
  3. Having multiple DRM technologies, and multiple audio formats will mean that consumers will be forced to stay with one hardware vendor. If my iPod breaks, I have to get another one because nothing else will play the songs I buy from iTunes. Or I can pay for the music again in a different format.

The current situation is not good for anybody. There will always be people who copy music (and software, and photos and other forms of intellectual property). Some of the recipients of those copies might actually like what they hear and buy it, or buy other things from the same artist. Remember the music industry hated radio and the cassette tape when they appeared, but long term I would say they have been good for business (and we won’t even get into the movie industry and the VCR). Sharing music is a form of promotion. The majority of the people who don’t buy more music having heard some for free, wouldn’t have bought it anyway. Either they didn’t like it, or they couldn’t have afforded it in the first place.

If the music industry was feeling brave, they might like to try something like the shareware software scheme: they could make some of their music available, unprotected and in MP3 format, perhaps at a lower bit rate than most people would use. This has a couple of key advantages:

  1. It acts as a great promotional tool (try before you buy always works well with IP). Consider this to be radio for the iPod generation.
  2. It reduces the need to pirate the songs since they are available legitimately for free, thereby taking some of the pirate’s market away.

Perhaps software like iTunes and WMP could read a tag from these unprotected tracks and display an upgrade button in their library browsers. Press the button to buy a higher quality version of the track, or a different version of the track. Buy enough and you get bonus tracks; or buy five upgrades, get five upgrades for free; or whatever – the possibilities here are endless, if only the industry has the guts to take a chance on it rather than circling the wagons and trying to annoy their most loyal customers in an effort to prevent people who were never their customers from doing what they’ve always done, and will continue to do regardless.

Of course, they’ll never do it as it would be too radical a move for what is at times an oddly conservative industry. Unless one of them does it… Sony: you’ve been bitten by DRM, how about it? How about trying something different, and a little revolutionary?

1 thought on “Digital Rights Management

  1. The Weed DRM has not been hacked yet and it pays the fans for sharing their music. Is that not good enough for you?

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