Imagine a world without DRM

Summary:The anti-DRM movement wants to boycott or ban all restrictions on your rights to use digital content. It's a topic I expect to discuss with a lot of people at CES next week. How would a world without DRM work? What would happen to the cable and satellite TV industries, to movie and TV producers, to software manufacturers?

I've been wrestling this week with some of the fundamental philosophical questions behind digital rights management (DRM). It's one of the topics I expect to discuss with a lot of people in the digital media industry at CES next week. Specifically, I'm wondering if the anti-DRM forces have really thought about how a world without DRM would work.

Let's take my esteemed colleague David Berlind, who says that DRM should more properly be called CRAP, which is short for Content Restriction, Annulment and Protection. In his witty presentation, A load of C.R.A.P., David ends with a call to action:

Stop buying this CRAP. Don't buy any technology that has CRAP in it, because all it's going to do is make it impossible for you to take the content that you're paying good money for and play it anywhere you want.
Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation, has gone even further, telling Forbes.com in an interview last year that " DRM ought to be prohibited by law..." And there are lots of people who agree with that take-no-prisoners outlook.

I'm not a fan of DRM, but I use it all the time when dealing with digital media in my everyday life. So please, help me understand how the following businesses would work in a world where DRM didn't exist:

Satellite TV. If I buy a dish, put it on my roof, and aim it at a satellite in geosynchronous orbit, should I be able to access everything being transmitted from that satellite? Currently, those broadcasts are protected by strong encryption, and I can only view the content by hooking up a decoder box that contains a conditional access card with a unique ID tied to my account. Sounds like DRM to me. If DRM were illegal, how would my satellite provider know I was a paying customer?

Premium cable/satellite programming. HBO, Showtime, and a host of similar companies have built businesses around premium content, for which their customers (like me) pay a monthly subscription charge. Cable and satellite companies act as their agents. The premium content goes out over the cable or comes down from the satellite in encrypted format, and I can only watch it if I have a digital set-top box that decodes it - a process that is controlled by a conditional access card or CableCARD. Isn't that DRM? Without it, how would HBO be able to deliver access only to paying customers?

Pay Per View movies. My cable and satellite companies both stream recent movies over designated channels in encrypted format. If I agree to pay a fee, they'll send a signal to my set-top box authorizing the box to decrypt the signal for me. Now those same services are being offered over the Internet, so that I can download a recent movie and play it back on my PC or TV without having to go to the video rental store. A PPV movie costs a few dollars, but without encryption I could burn it to a DVD, which typically costs $20 or more. Without encryption and authentication - in other words, DRM - how would those services survive?

Software. An increasing number of companies (not just Microsoft) deliver software in a form that requires a unique product ID and activation over the Internet or via the telephone. The process creates a unique installation ID that dictates your right to use a specific digital product. Isn't this DRM? Should software activation be banned and all software made freely installable on any computer without any license checks at all?

I'm seriously looking for answers to these questions. The "ban DRM" movement doesn't seem to take these business models into account at all, and a "stop using CRAP" boycott would eliminate many products and services that use DRM in a way that isn't as obvious as it is with downloaded music.

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Topics: Nasa / Space

About

Ed Bott is an award-winning technology writer with more than two decades' experience writing for mainstream media outlets and online publications. He has served as editor of the U.S. edition of PC Computing and managing editor of PC World; both publications had monthly paid circulation in excess of 1 million during his tenure. He is the a... Full Bio

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