Thursday, August 10, 2006

DRM Wars: Return of the Sith

Professor Ed Felten of Freedom To Tinker discusses signs that the debate over DRM is about to shift away from copyright.

For the last few years, proponents of Digital Restrictions Management software have claimed that it was all about enforcing copyrights. Opponents of DRM have observed that this was transparently false: DRM is more than just copy protection, which doesn't work. Bits, by their very nature, are copyable. Trying to make bits uncopable is like trying to make water not wet. DRM is more about controlling access to information, not about protecting copyright.

But, despite DRM, there is no shortage of copies of protected content available on the Internet. As Felten says:

The usual argument in favor of bolstering DRM is that DRM retards peer-to-peer copyright infringement. This argument has always been bunk — every worthwhile song, movie, and TV show is available via P2P, and there is no convincing practical or theoretical evidence that DRM can stop P2P infringement. Policymakers have either believed naively that the next generation of DRM would be different, or accepted vague talk about speedbumps and keeping honest people honest.

It seems that the music and movie companies and the policymakers have started to realise that water is wet DRM-as-copy-protection doesn't work. Consequently, DRM advocates are switching to two new arguments: price discrimination and lock-in. Naturally, they're in favour of both. Naturally, consumers (as well as many suppliers!) are opposed to both.

The first argument is that DRM allows suppliers to price discriminate -- charge different customers different amounts for the same product -- and that this is good for society.

The second is that DRM allows suppliers to lock their customers in to a single supplier, and naturally this too is supposed to be good for society.

And, naturally, these free market capitalists want the threat of government force to protect their efforts to disciminate and lock-in customers. Heaven forbid that they sell their crippled products in a truly free market, one where consumers are free to remove the DRM if they don't want it. You paid for it, you own it and can do anything you want with it, right? Not if the DRM advocates get their way. In their world, it's "you paid for it, we control it, if you don't like it, tough".

Like Felten, I'm going to skip over the merits and limitations of these two arguments for now, and merely observe that the DRM advocates' rhetoric is moving away from the P2P bogeyman and towards these "greed is good" arguments. (One might speculate whether or not the record labels' hopes to use P2P technologies for distributing music is one of the reasons they're cutting back on the "Napster and Kazaa are evil" rhetoric.)

Felten observes:

Interestingly, these new arguments have little or nothing to do with copyright. The maker of almost any product would like to price discriminate, or to lock customers in to its product. Accordingly, we can expect the debate over DRM policy to come unmoored from copyright, with people on both sides making arguments unrelated to copyright and its goals.

If the music and movie companies succeed in having consumer lock-in elevated to a legally-protected right, expect this disease to spread. It might not happen overnight, but eventually manufacturers of all sorts will demand a piece of the pie. Next will be printer manufacturers, who will demand protection against competitors who make compatible print cartridges. (That's a dead cert: they've already tried.) Car manufacturers, in partnership with tire manufacturers, could easily use RFID technology so that the car would refuse to start if the "wrong" brand of tires was put on. As more and more consumer products become computerised, we might easily find that we can do less and less with them.

This will be a very interesting time indeed. I'd like to think that if the false platitudes of the pigopolists get stripped away revealing their naked greed, there will be fewer well-meaning but naive politicians supporting them.

Yeah, I think that's funny too.

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