Declaration of InDRMpendence

Summary:Is your anti-virus or anti-spyware technology warning you about the Digital Rights Management software on your computer?  If not, it should be.

Is your anti-virus or anti-spyware technology warning you about the Digital Rights Management software on your computer?  If not, it should be.  It's a Trojan horse of the worst kind.

Earlier today, after describing to a close friend the rock and the hard place that I'm between since I can't easily play the 99 cent songs I buy through Apple's iTunes music store on my $20,000 whole home entertainment setup, he said "Dave... check out Sonos' solution.  It'll solve your problem for about $500 per room." 

Not that I have another $500 per room to spend, but I checked into it and the solution is indeed very cool.  The units that you put into each room wirelessly form a self-organized mesh and just one of them needs access to your music library on a computer or network attached storage (NAS) device. Unfortunately, if I buy Sonos' gear, it appears as though I'll run in the same problem that I'm already having.  According to a technical specifications page on Sonos Web site, "DRM-encrypted and Apple or WMA Lossless formats not currently supported." In other words, songs purchased through  iTunes that are wrapped in Apple's FairPlay digital rights management (DRM) envelope won't work.  Neither will songs you buy from stores based on Microsoft's DRM technology found in content purchased through PlaysForSure-logoed merchants (eg: Napster-to-Go).  While I hate to be the breaker of bad news, I sent him an e-mail explaining the situation.

But now that DRM is coming up on my radar every day, and the more I read about it (on the Web, in our TalkBacks, and in my e-mail), the angrier I get.  To vent, I've decided to start regularly ranting about DRM.  Dating back to cassette tapes (which came before VCRs) and probably something before that, the entertainment industry has never liked the idea of people copying its content.   To Hollywood, the digital age is a double edged sword.  On one edge exists a highly scalable infrastructure that can ruin the profit potential of any single piece of content in a matter of hours. On other edge is the scalable control that Hollywood can finally retake over the duplication of its content through DRM technologies. 

What you need to know is that DRM can be, and has proven to be, a Trojan horse.  In a back and forth thread of e-mails, the Electronic Frontier Foundation's John Gilmore described to me how DRM technology basically allows those who sit at the controls of it to arbitrarily change the rules.  For example, one day, with Apple's iTunes, we were able to burn the same playlist as many as ten times. A day later, it was seven.   Unlike before, when we could take our vinyl records and CDs and do pretty much anything we wanted with them (to facilitate our personal use) or even sell them (or will them to family members), the "R" in DRM is much less about what we have the right to do and more about the Restrictions that can be arbitrarily and remotely asserted over something we paid good money for.  So far, the best suggestion I've heard to dodge the CRM bullet is seek used CDs.  It may not be a la carte song buying. But it's not a premium price for a bunch of music you may not want anyway. 

Microsoft and Apple couldn't have asked for a better gift horse (Hollywood) to come their way, seeking a solution that ultimately gives back to it what it has for so long wanted.  Both companies had a razor (the DRM playback technology) and all they needed were some blades (the music).  Today, with every individual DRM-wrapped piece of content that gets sold, we are securing the futures of the DRM licensors (mostly Apple and Microsoft). That content will forever be useless unless you have something that includes their playback technologies.

The fact that you have 1000 iTunes store-bought songs means that you will be paying Apple  to use that music for the rest of your life (directly for devices like iPods or indirectly through licensee's products like Motorola iTunes phones).  With Microsoft aggressively licensing its DRM technology to multiple device manufacturers (for both audio and video) and multiple online content merchants, I've already said that its DRM technology is positioned to follow in Windows' footsteps as the next dominant technology monoculture even though Apple's players continue to sell like hot cakes.  By continuing to buy DRM-wrapped content, we as consumers are actually unwittingly co-conspiring with Hollywood to give Microsoft and Apple the keys to the kingdom. 

Go ahead.  Ask your favorite iPod owner if he or she knows that by buying songs from the iTunes store, they're actually assuring Apple's legacy.  Apple could sell the songs at its cost and it would still be fantastically profitable forever while having unprecedented control over Hollywood.  It's no wonder Warner Music CEO Edgar Bronfman Jr. is threatening to put his foot down now.  He sees control over his business -- for example, who sets the price of the music he sells -- slipping away to the tech titans.  Perhaps he's just now realizing that his company (and his industry) may have sold its soul (no pun intended) to the devil.

The aforementioned Sonos anecdote represents the perfect opportunity to inspire this first rant because the first time I saw Sonos' gear was at a previous MIT Emerging Technologies Conference and, yesterday, while attending the most recent of that series of conferences, I had a chance to ask Motorola CEO Ed Zander one question while he was on stage discussing his vision of the wireless world. Motorola is the only company besides Apple itself that sells a device (the recently announced iTunes phone) that can play FairPlay-wrapped music.  That's because Apple licensed the technology to Motorola for usage in that phone. 

I asked Zander if, in his role as a licensee that's thrusting DRM-enabled products into the market, he didn't think that we were on the verge of anointing another technology monoculture.  The reason I asked this is that the number of handsets greatly outnumbers the number of computers and if everyone of them has either Apple or Microsoft's DRM technology on it, the market penetration of a major proprietary infrastructure control point will make the Windows monopoly look paltry by comparison.  As I said earlier in this blog, Microsoft is aggressively licensing its multimedia and DRM technologies -- a phenomenon that I've been documenting in this blog's Media Juggernaut category.

Zander never did answer the question. He did however mention that he's licensing DRM technologies from both companies for separate phones (Motorola has a Windows Mobile-enabled phone as well).  He also said that he'd like to see a single standard emerge.  I'll give him the benefit of the doubt by saying he probably meant "open standard" (one where neither he nor Hollywood would be beholden to Microsoft or Apple).  But in replaying my question and his answer in his mind, I now wish I came back with a second question which would have been "Don't you think it kind of stinks that your selling two products that are incompatible with each other?"  In other words, if I decide to move to the Windows Mobile-based phone from the iTunes phone, none of the music I have stored on the iTunes phone can be transferred.  Imagine, for example, if the phone numbers you had for your friends worked on one phone, but not the other.  Wouldn't that royally suck?

The EFF's Gilmore has admonished me in e-mail for not being absolutely clear about my position on DRM.  When I omitted the qualifier "open" in my first discussion of why we'd be better off with a single standard that everyone complied with, Gilmore was quick to say "Be careful what you ask for."  PlaysForSure or FairPlay could easily become the de facto standard (a.k.a.  monopoly).   I should have said "open standard." Even so, I'm not sure that I even favor an open standard at this point.  Not if it's going to be used for Digital Restriction Management. 

You shouldn't take any of this to mean that I don't believe in compensating content copyright holders with whatever royalties they're due (DRM's other role is to assure such compensation to some extent).  But as long as DRM technology stands in the way of legitimate use of the content that I've paid for, I as an informed buyer will vote with my dollars by going elsewhere for my content (for example, sites where the artists offer their music for free).  You should too.  That's my Declaration of InDRMpendence.  Don't let this plague spread beyond the epidemic level that it has already reached. Just say no to DRM (stop buying DRM-wrapped content before it's way too late and oppose any DRM-related laws under consideration by any legislative body). 

I know it's not the most corporate IT-esque of topics (our charter here), but this issue has really got me steamed.  And, believe it or not, to the extent that it could lead to another monoculture, there are corporate implications. So, stay tuned for more regular rants about my DRM-free campaign.  And, if you have a good name for that campaign or want to submit some artwork for its logo, let me know at david.berlind@cnet.com. If you just want to show your support by being a co-signer of this Declaration, please just enter a message below in our comments section (and a co-signer you will become!).

Topics: Mobility

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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