We the Sheeple (and other tales of DRM woe)

Summary:This past Friday, I wrote my personal Delcaration of InDRMpendence.  It scratches the surface of why we must place a citizens' injunction on Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) technology before it's too late.

This past Friday, I wrote my personal Delcaration of InDRMpendence.  It scratches the surface of why we must place a citizens' injunction on Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) technology before it's too late.   If you didn't realize that the "R" in DRM stands for "Restrictions" instead of "Rights," you should read it.  DRM technology is spyware and Trojan horse technology of the worst kind, wrapped up into one.  Our anti-virus systems are not stopping it and we, the Sheeple, have somehow been seduced into merrily going along with it. Very few people are outraged about it and there's no groundswell of a grassroots movement to put the DRM movement -- currently making its way through our technology and our Congress virtually unchecked -- on hold for a rethink before it gets to that point where we wake up tomorrow regretting that we didn't do anything about it. 

Perhaps the most interesting response to my Declaration of InDRMpendence came from the guy who runs all of CNET Networks' business destinations including ZDNet and TechRepublic -- Stephen Howard-Sarin.  Stephen, like many sheeple that happily baaaaaaa their way through the meadow in submissiveness to the shephard who controls their every move, doesn't see DRM's open-ended restrictions as any big deal.  I say open-ended because, like Trojan horses and spyware, DRM technology is under the technology providers' control, not ours.  It's designed so that someone else can arbitrarily tighten the restrictions on how we use the technology and content we buy with our hard-earned money (more on that, including examples, in a second).  Wrote Stephen in a post entitled Why should I care?:

My consumer choices in music are being restricted all over the place. But I don’t care that much. I’ve accepted physical restrictions on product re-use for my entire life – can’t listen to LPs on my CD player, can’t run my Mac apps on my PC, gotta buy new types of RAM every time I build a new computer – so I just can’t get all that exercised over the limitations on content re-use from DRM software.

Stephen's post goes on to describe in detail why DRM may not be the big deal I'm making it out to be.  He needs more proof.  At least one other ZDNet reader (Wolfie2K3) takes him on in a point for point breakdown of where the wool is being pulled over his eyes in the appropriately name response Of Apples (literally) and Oranges.  In reading Wolfie's reply, as well as what many other ZDNet readers had to say (thank you by the way for the outstanding effort), it's clear to me that the biggest challenge in getting the InDRMpendence voices and movement out of the wilderness and into the mainstream is to strip away the DRM technical mumbo jumbo that not only clouds the issue, but that also causes many people who might otherwise get outraged to simply tune out. 

I was reminded of this challenge this weekend when I was explaining to a non-technical family member why he shouldn't buy another iPod.  His wife already has one and thankfully, she hasn't loaded it with any music from Apple's iTunes music store.  I found myself really struggling to find the words that could make both the problem and the solution as obvious to him as it was to me.  What started as "You need to think twice before you buy that iPod" took a circuitous route through a deeply technical explanation that finally exited on the other end with that aha moment for him.  Fortunately for me, he was a patient family member who was willing to give me whatever time I needed to explain the problem.  

Why am I telling you this? Well, for starters, there aren't enough of us out there trying to hone the message into something that's as easily digested as the those from anti-smoking outfits like TheTruth.com and GetOutraged.com (although I'm kind of shocked at how you have to scroll on the former's home page to see the first mention of cigarette smoke).   I was glad to see that Doc Searls was not only the first to co-signer of the Delcaration of InDRMpendence, but that he also added a few sage words of his own to the cause  (sans the tech talk).  Bravo Doc.  Encore (we need more performances like that from every voice in the wilderness).

The articulation challenge is part of the potion being used by DRM advocates to put us sheeple under their magic spell. Many people credit the iPod's success to how well it just works.  Indeed, in iTunes (the software), iTunes (the music store), and its iPods,  Apple and Microsoft have done a marvelous job in creating a user experience that shelters us from what would otherwise be an incredibly complex and technical process.  The user interface designers should win an award.  The problem in this case is that the business people took that irresistible interface and slipped a mickey into it.   So seductive is the potion, we've been conned into believing it improves our image too.  Cigarettes supposedly do wonders for your image as well.  It isn't until after 20 years of addiction that you find out about the nasty little side effects. 

So, back to Stephen and his question, why should I care? Not only should you care Stephen, I'd like to see you outraged so that you self-deputize yourself as one of the great communicators.  Here are some non-technical bullet points for you:

  • You talk about how you're used to physical restrictions.  For example, you say that you can’t listen to LPs (vinyl records) on your CD player.  This is a media/form factor decision.  You could've taken that LP and played it on the LP player of your choice.  You can take a CD and play it on the CD player of your choice.  You can freely move the CD from your stereo system to your car to your portable Sony Walkman.  But with the new media type -- digital music -- you can't take the digital music you buy in Apple's iTunes music store or one of the Microsoft PlaysForSure-compliant music stores and play it on the digital music player of your choice. Why not? You can't play it on the stereo system of your choice.  Unlike with LPs and CDs, you can't even go into the  iTunes music store and buy me a song.  Or, unlike with CDs and LPs, if you decide you don't like the digital music you purchased, you can't resell it or give it to a friend.  Try legaly willing your DRMed music collection to someone. 
  • You also talk about how there might be a class action suit if the people holding the DRM puppet strings change the rules on us.  Really?  Where was the class action suit when Apple reduced the number of times you could burn a playlist from ten to seven.  What's next?  Five? Three? None?  Where was the big lawsuit when TiVoed episodes of King of the Hill started getting automatically deleted? As I said earlier, we've been slipped a mickey.  We agreed to be sheeple when we took delivery of these products and services. 
  • I was just thinking about how what we all really need is another monopoly in this business. A duopoly wouldn't be bad either. You know, the kind that stifles innovation, forecloses on competition, and limits our choices, and all that? The other day, I was talking to someone in the digital music business and he didn't say that he didn't want to license Apple's FairPlay technology. He said he couldn't license Apple's FairPlay technology.  I don't know why and I didn't ask (we ran out of time).  But, in case you didn't notice, one of the subtexts here is the battleground between the traditional consumer entertainment electronics companies and the computer companies.  For example, what might the outcome be if ten years from now, the companies that we're used to buying our entertainment gear from can't make gear that's compatible with the content (music, movies, etc.) we're buying? Shut their doors, I guess. Isn't that stifling competition? Once us sheeple collectively buy enough music from Apple's iTunes music store or a PlaysForSure music store, Apple and Microsoft have the entire consumer electronics business over a barrell.  That music isn't playing on those manufacturers' gear unless Apple and Microsoft say so.   As long as we buy DRMed content, we're willing co-conspirators in this travesty Stephen.  Lest you don't think there's a wrestling match between the computer companies and the consumer electronics companies to control the future of entertainment gear, I find it interesting that Intel, Microsoft, and Toshiba are on one side of the HD DVD vs. Blu-Ray Disc battle versus Panasonic, Sony, Philips, Pioneer, Hitachi, JVC, Sharp, Zenith, etc. on the other side (Dell and HP too, but they're much less about proprietary control points and more about moving product). 
  • How about this for a scenario? Some whippersnapper hacker cracks the code on FairPlay and PlaysForSure so badly that Microsoft and Apple must either fix the code or go all the way back to square one and re-invent DRM (how much longer is it before Apple has a technical response to hymn and jhymn?).  What becomes of our existing music collections? Will the DRM puppet string holders disable our existing collections, force us to buy new gear, or go through some sort of painful conversion process?  Or, let's say the DRM technology was licensed to my favorite gear maker but he makes audiophile gear that can't be updated like computers can. Now what? Oh, guess what Joe audio gear maker.  Now, instead of worrying about making really good audio gear, you have to make computers that can take software downloads from the Internet, etc., etc.
  • Last bullet point Stephen, but what happens when this technology finds its way into other material like books (it already has, but the market for digital books isn't here yet)? 

Think it through is all I'm asking.  The more you think about it, the uglier DRM gets.  You have a choice.  You can grab a shovel and help the rest of the sheeple dig the hole that we're all going to jump into.  Or you can dig your heels in as part of a movement that puts the brakes are the current direction things are going before it's too late.

Topics: Legal

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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