Is DRM really about controlling piracy, or does it serve a different function altogether?
In a Google+ conversation, Google engineer Ian Hickson argues that digital rights management (DRM), often found embedded within products including DVDs and eBooks to prevent unauthorized copying or use, is not in place to protect firms from the prevalence of piracy.
Instead, Hickson argues that this belief is based on "faulty logic," and it is actually used as a tool to give content providers power over playback device manufacturers, as distributors cannot legally distribute copyrighted material without permission from the content provider. So, those who offer media, including games and film, gain leverage in how the files can be used and shared, as well as the means to tap into additional revenue streams.
Hickson provides some cases related to his arguments. For example, Fox makes a movie and Apple purchases the rights to sell it on iTunes. Users then buy and download the film, but Fox wants you to purchase the movie again if you want to use it in a way that doesn't include an Apple device, such as use on an Android phone. With DRM, you cannot use it elsewhere — without DRM, the use of such content is not restricted.
If you're not happy with this system, there are a number of workarounds and pirate downloads available, albeit illegally. However, Fox would prefer to protect the potential revenue stream made available by you trying to change the ecosystem in which you use the content.
"Nobody has been stopped from violating a copyright. All these movies are probably available on file-sharing sites. The only people who are stopped from doing anything are the player providers — they are forced to provide a user experience that, rather than being optimised for the users, puts potential future revenues first (forcing people to play ads, keeping the door open to charging more for more features later, building artificial obsolescence into content so that if you change ecosystem, you have to purchase the content again)."
In order to further reinforce the point, the engineer argues that while DRM works well in the physical video and book space, even if the system is faulty, use in the music industry was doomed to fail. This is due to the fact content providers sold their digital content without DRM, which allowed playback on a range of devices. If CDs had been encrypted to start with, then it is possible DRM contract-wielding distributors would have been able to prevent listening on selected mobile gadgets, including iPods.
In conclusion, the Google engineer argues that "DRM's purpose is to give content providers control over software and hardware providers," and it is doing a fine job so far.