At a recent junket up in Redmond, Bill Gates told the audience of invited bloggers that DRM has "huge problems" and that people should "people should just buy a CD and rip it. You are legal then," (putting this in context, he said this is response to a question posed by Michael Arrington in relation to the long term viability of DRM). Does this signal a change in how Microsoft views DRM, or is it that Gates doesn't agree with the direction that Microsoft is taking with regards to DRM?
Now, Gates is a smart man and he carries a Zune. I don't think that there's any chance that he's not worked out for himself that the current DRM model that's used as a wrapper for media simply isn't working out as a deterrent against piracy. What's more, it's a major hindrance to those trying to work within the limits of the schemes in place.
What really worries me is that a smart guy like him can't come up with a better mechanism. Microsoft has rolled out the Zune Marketplace which sells DRMed media yet Bill Gates is suggesting that people go out and buy and rip CDs. Interesting that this is the best advice that he can offer. What would happen if consumers shunned digital downloads in favor of CDs and DVDs? Would this weaken the RIAA and MPAA and make them back-pedal on DRM?
But Gates doesn't just see ripping CDs as a way to avoid DRM hassles (unless the CD happens to contain copy protection, in which case you have an extra hurdle to jump), but also as a way for consumers to stay on the right side of the law. Seems like Bill Gates doesn't subscribe to the RIAA's view that ripping CDs is evil, which is yet another interesting insight into how he thinks.
But maybe this is Gates' way of signaling defeat at the hands of the recording industry, which is a real shame. Microsoft wields a lot more power than Apple and could have negotiated deals that would have meant a greater level of freedom for consumers. Instead it decides that the best thing to do is pay Universal Studios a "Zune tax". That can't be a good thing.
While I don't see the current DRM model as being workable (it works for the type of consumer that sees media as being disposable, but for anyone trying to maintain a media library, it's far from workable), I also don't see a totally DRM-free world as being workable either. Somewhere in-between those two extremes lies a better solution (which, I hasten to add, is never going to suit everyone) but don't ask me what this solution would be.
As an aside, I have to admit that the "grilling" that these hardcore bloggers gave Bill Gates was, on the whole, pretty lame (along with Arrington's question, I think that Niall Kennedy's question about Linux IP was the only other serious one). For example, Steve Rubel, who says admits that "this has been on my calendar for over a month now and I had plenty of time to process it mentally before Gates arrived," came up with "what's on your Zune?". Tough question!