Abundance of DRM trainwrecks make them worth tracking. You can help.

Summary:Speaking of lists worth keeping, I'm going to start collecting examples of real-world DRM trainwrecks in hopes of better making the point that most people don't realize how much they're giving up when they consciously or sub-consciously use solutions that depend on it.  I get a lot of email that accuses me of being a Chicken Little that overblows the situation by saying the sky is falling.

Speaking of lists worth keeping, I'm going to start collecting examples of real-world DRM trainwrecks in hopes of better making the point that most people don't realize how much they're giving up when they consciously or sub-consciously use solutions that depend on it.  I get a lot of email that accuses me of being a Chicken Little that overblows the situation by saying the sky is falling.  Well, the sky is falling and if those folks want to live in denial, that's their problem. The technology makes it possible for content providers to change the terms and/or deactivate the content... So, to put a real face on the problem, I'm turning to the blogosphere to help me build the list and to del.icio.us to store it.  There's a real opportunity here for the community to work together for the benefit of end-users as well as for the Internet which could end up stove-piped if the world continues down the DRM path that it's on. 

So far, I've reported on a handful of trainwrecks here on ZDNet.  For most people, the biggest of these is probably the Sony BMG CD rootkit fiasco.  What started as one trainwreck snowballed into others as the initial remedies introduced even more problems. Perhaps more interesting though are the trainwrecks where the fallibility of DRM technology or post-agreement switcheroos (enforced through DRM) left users with a really bad taste in their mouths. 

In the fallibility category, the three examples that come to mind are (1) the one involving Microsoft's DRM where some users were forced to back-rev the DRM drivers in Windows and restore their DRM-protected content from backup because of how such back-revving wipes protected content out, (2) a bug that mysteriously activated some DRM-backed content revocation features found in TiVo devices, and (3) what could happen to your entire music collection if the system you run iTunes on craches.  

In the Microsoft back-revving case, just the laborious recovery process alone is a trainwreck unto itself.  Unfortunately, with that version of Microsoft's DRM (and maybe others, I don't know), content licensors can deactivate your ability to back-up any content you've acquired from them.  In other words, if for any reason you're forced to restore DRM protected content, some of it may be irrecoverable without paying again.  One "incident," two trainwrecks. 

Another notable trainwreck in the fallibility category turned up when a TiVo user was notified on his television that an espisode of King of the Hill that he had recorded could not be kept indefinitely "due to a policy set by the copyright holder."  A similar problem with the Simpsons was supposedly traced to a bug. But the quality of the artificacts (there's no way the aforementioned language is a bug) makes it clear that the hooks to revoke rights and remotely delete content are present in the technologies we're using.

Then, there was the widely reported and linked-to post by Rex Hammock who chronicled how his co-worker lost of all her music because she didn't have it backed up.  This is one reason Navio's approach to DRM is the lesser of many evils. Navio keeps track of everything you have acquired the rights to.  If you have some sort of catastrophic crash and lose all of your music, videos, or whatever other content you may have acquired through Navio, it shouldn't be a problem.  Navio's "memory" means you can get it back without having to worry about becoming an IT person and running backups.

In the "sorry, we're changing the rules on you" switcheroo category, three standouts are Apple's reduction of the number of CDs you can burn from an iTunes playlist from 10 to 7 and the near-doubling of the monthly price of Yahoo!'s music subscription service, and a pass-the-buck version of the switcheroo where an ISP was apparently forced by content licensors to deactivate content that its customers had already paid for.  Proving that such changes can sometimes work in your favor, Apple raised the maximum number of PCs that could be associated with an iTunes account (aka "authorized") in 2004.  And, in all fairness, Yahoo's initial price of $6.99 was apparently advertised as a special promotional price to draw subscribers in.

But, regardless of whether the restrictions are being added or lifted, or whether prices are justifiably getting changed, the technology (in the Yahoo case, Microsoft's DRM) makes it possible for content providers to change the terms and/or deactivate the content if you don't go along with those changes. This lesser understood fact about DRM shouldn't be lost on end-users who often enter into those agreements not knowing the extent to which they're passing the controls of the content they acquire over to another party.

OK. Back to the list.  I've come to the realization that when it comes to the DRM nightmare, nothing works better than examples and since no master list of all the DRM trainwrecks exist, we might as well leverage the collaborative power of social networking technologies and build one.  So, to start the list off, I've created a tag in del.icio.us called DRMtrainwrecks and have started to populate it with links to proof points of the pernicious nature of digital rights management technology.  Please join me in populating del.icio.us with links tagged with the DRMtrainwrecks tag and maybe together we can amass the evidence that some people need to get a better picture of the future that lies ahead if something isn't done and done soon to change the course of history. Then, monitor that tag using its RSS feed and any time something of interest turns up, blog it, and tag it appropriately. This is your opportunity to use the Web's social networking technologies to participate in a worthy cause with people you don't even know.

Topics: Telcos

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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