We the Sheeple (and other tales of DRM woe)

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.

Topic: Legal

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  • Talk is cheap...

    All this talk about DRM and the doom and gloom it presents is meaningless as long as people consume.

    Like gas prices, there are enough people consuming the good to allow the producers to simply ride the scale.

    Music, Videos, Gas, Diamonds, and many other markets are artificial by enforcing supply even if the supply is unlimited or forced limited consumption. The nickel that eventually gets to the artist should be given directly to the artist, but so many have hands in the stew and require it to be $1 spread across everyone.

    Talk is cheap, stop the consumption, read a book. That wouldn't be realistic would it?

    As for Berlind, I don't think complaints about DRM coming from someone complaining also about their inability to strap a 99 cent DRM protected song to their [oft stated $20,000] sound system is valid. I'd rather hear it from the school kid who isn't living on Mom and Dads dime having issues with not wanting to violate copyright law just to get tunes and having to work two jobs just to pay for community college, a cheap apartment with leaky faucets, and a bed consisting of just the mattress and a sleeping bag.

    The real problem has always been MONEY, those with it direct those without it until those without get sick of their direction. Their direction is never in the best interests of the masses. Things should be different.
    • I was with you until half way through...

      I use the $20K number to highlight the abusrdity of the situation. If a $99 player can't play the songs, it doesn't get any attention. The bottom line is that cost is irrelevant. Choice is what's relevant and you should be able to freely choose a $99 device for your hip as much as you choose a $20K setup for your home and not have to worry about being able to use the music you paid for on both.
      • I knew you'd say that...

        I was reluctant to say anything about the numbers game because there was always the fallback on the 'absurdity' of the it all, but my comment would have to be... Who cares then if it is a $99 player or a $20K player, if choice is what matters, the statistics of the vehicle should matter, its the freeway you drive on that should be free and clear of debris.

        In a nutshell, no one is interested in your positive cash-flow, we all know its the advertisements that pay the bills. To let us know that we've afforded you the ability to install a $20K sound system that doesn't play 99 cent audio files really doesn't do the problem justice, it just spells out that we should start a blog and start writing for ZDnet and get in the loop.

        Are there any openings?
        • I have no interest in discussing my cash flow...

          My wife whom I've known known for ten years (seven of them married)was never very enthusiastic about the idea. But after the system went in and she pressed two buttons on the bathroom wall to deliver sound through the speakers embedded in the ceiling, she said, "you know, this really changes the mood in the house." I knew it would. Bear in mind that this was a two year project with the expenses spread out. But it's what she said after that I hope makes it a little more palatable for you Protector: "In the ten years I've known you, you've never really purchased anything for yourself. You deserved this." Of course, now she likes it for everyone else in the family too. I wanted our children to grow up with the joy of music filling our home. Yesterday, we had Beethoven filling the entire downstairs of our house. I believe that's an important gift. To me, it's worth it to do it right rather than to have stereos, boom boxes, and wires all over the place. But this DRM crap is standing in the way.

          ps: Dating back to the days when ZDNet was owned by Ziff-Davis, I've been on ZDNet's roster since '98 and was with Ziff-Davis at various magazines for seven years before that. So, I've got some sweat equity here. That said, I think there's always room for othes to break into this business... especially with the blogosphere going gangbusters the way it is. But the other guy on this thread... Stephen Howard-Sarin....is the better person to talk to about job opportunities.

          • I'm not a fan of DRM either...

            Take a look at Napster and Napster to Go... you pay $15 a month for your downloads [unlimited albeit] but they are held hostage. If you don't renew your monthly fee, you don't get renewed licenses. [I wrote about this recently actually.]

            So, you can download all you want for $15, listen locally, transfer to an MP3 player, but you can't burn it nor can you 'keep it' until you pay an additional 99 cents.

            So, unless I keep a wireless connection on my PC and strap it to my backside, my first burned CD or album that I wish to keep for more than 30 days, will cost me $30, and I still have to pay for the CD, Jewel Case, and print out my song list, etc.

            What a deal!

            As for the rest of it, no need to explain further, we're actually on the same side, I'm just a bit more socialist about things.

            If you really want DRM to go away, you'll have to do more than write nastygrams about the technology. You'll have to convert those who subscribe to the belief that DRM will really protect. You'll have to convert the artists, the labels, and the other financiers. That's big big money. That is a quantum shift in philosophy.

            What do you have to convert them to? How about, you don't need to protect your work to such a degree. The consumers will compensate you for what your work is worth and that is what you should get.

            Good luck in that. :)
  • Better arguments this time.

    The ability to use materials as the buyer chooses can be a compelling argument, particularly to buyers who have just run into a limitation on that ability.

    The problem is, DRM is not fixed.

    For example, Apple was able to change the number of uses. That means they can change also change it back if the reaction is too strong.

    The content companies are fully capable of tweaking what their customers have to endure to make it tolerable.

    The only way to use inconvenience against the content companies is to raise the principle of freedom of use.

    I'd say that this is not one of those rights people are willing to fight for, particularly if they have to inconvenience themselves.

    To put this in context, I remember a survey of the public years ago. The person taking the survey read the Bill of Rights (the first 10 amendments to the US constitution specifying some things the federal government may not do) to responders and asked if they would support these principles.
    The majority, who were apparently unfamiliar with the text, said that on balance they would not.

    Music may be an easier sell, but somehow I doubt it.
    Anton Philidor
    • Nothing new

      This has been going since I was a kid in the early '60s. I've lost
      track of the number of times I've seen TV news crews do this
      very thing in man-in-the-street type interviews every 4th of July.

      What was really scary was the number of people who said they
      opposed them because they considered them communist or

      I really ought to be used to it by now, but the stupidity of the
      human race never ceases to amaze me.
  • Someone will always break DRM.

    We know that. So do the content companies.
    When a past DRM effort was broken by someone with a thick marker, a content industry representative commented that the purpose was not to be effective, but to show people that file sharing was wrong.

    Uh huh.
    Of course the content companies would prefer DRM worked.

    But even if it doesn't, those inconveniences you're talking about are a major advantage to the content companies, to the degree that they increase the number of times content is paid for.

    You wrote, as a hypothetical:
    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?

    I suspect, No.

    DRM has one customer, the content companies. The product won't even get into production if the single customer doesn't approve. That's about as demand-driven as you can get.

    DRM is a function of content company marketing, even more than it's a protection.

    (I believe, by the way, that the content companies know they are not losing money on file sharing. Their resources are greater than those of the people who did the studies proving that file sharing increases purchasing by enough people to more than offset any lost sales.
    But why should the content companies sacrifice an argument that looks compelling even though it isn't true(?).)

    The great replacements occur when a new technology is ready, and not when a new inconvenience has been prepared for the victims, aka customers.

    Trust the content companies to be sensitive.
    Anton Philidor
    • Why indeed?

      [i]I believe, by the way, that the content companies know they are not losing money on file sharing. Their resources are greater than those of the people who did the studies proving that file sharing increases purchasing by enough people to more than offset any lost sales.
      But why should the content companies sacrifice an argument that looks compelling even though it isn't true(?)[/i]

      Because it's costing them?

      In the long run, it could cost them their existence -- see my earlier post "Zero-Sum Game." Reading history doesn't seem to be their thing or they'd know better than to invite the Romans in to help them with an "internal" problem.

      In the near term, it's certainly costing them hard cash for "anti-piracy" measures [1], and they're starting to see the iron fist with Apple's bargaining over terms.

      [1] Disney actually got a clue recently and took Macrovision off of their videotapes because they were paying more to Macrovision than even their highball estimates of losses to copying.
      Yagotta B. Kidding
    • The DRM customer

      The content companies are getting snake oil too. If you're a tech company, you couldn't ask for a better dream to come true. To have Hollywood come to you seeking copy protection. After the suits head back to LA, everyone hi-fives each other as they head off to their cubes knowing that the goal -- to secure the company's future -- is to sell as many individual DRMed pieces of content as possible. After I published this blog today, this item crossed my RSS aggregator: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2005/10/03/h1_2005_music_market/

      In 2005H1, $790MM was spent worldwide on digital music. Up 259 percent over the same period last year.

      • Yes, the sales figures show...

        ... that current DRM restrictions are not having an effect.

        Your argument is now based on outrage leading to complaint. But people do not believe strongly in high flown principles, let alone act on them.
        You're also assuming that the content companies are not adroit enough to keep the DRM restrictions within tolerable bounds. I think that's wrong.

        The real protest is file sharing.

        Your comment about happy programmers in their cubes shows, I think, that you agree the DRM producers are responding to their customers, not controlling them. Good.
        Not only is Apple competition for Microsoft, but they can argue that they're only providing what the customer is asking for in a special order. How would anti-trust be involved in that?
        Anton Philidor
    • This time it doesn't matter if its broken! Its still bad.

      There seem to be a lot of people who, while they agree that DRM is bad for the consumer, also seem to think that someone will come along and crack it and save all consumers everywhere from the mess. So why bother stopping it to begin with??

      The thing is its different this time. We are talking about an extremely technical hardware-based DRM, not simply software or cd's that can be broken with a magic marker.

      Even if some technical genius somewhere breaks hardware-based DRM, the average consumer will not be able to accomplish the same feat. In the past the hacker could write a software program that automated the steps to defeat the technology or provide a simple explanation of how to replicate what the hacker did. Unfortunately, the steps involved in defeating hardware-based DRM are much more likely to involve tinkering with the innards of your computer, something the average joe is not going to even attempt, let alone accomplish.
      • One successful break in DRM...

        ... and an eager worldwide distribution system is ready to carry the result to eager co-conspirators.

        If DRM cannot be applied retrospectively, then the DRM-free copy will have to be accepted, even with hardware DRM.

        It's important to remember that the content companies could have as much activity as all the file sharing programs combined, and make a profit on each transaction. A large incremental gain in profits.

        The public is showing the content companies how to run their business, and the content companies are outraged. So angry they'll forego the $ billions to reject the upstarts.
        Anton Philidor
    • Breaking of DRM is not guaranteed

      ...have any young "whippersnappers" broken the encryption used by Banks for their ATMs? Haven't heard much about that, even though ATMs have been around for 20+ years.

      Even the Xbox was a hard hard hack to break, to allow it to run software not signed by Microsoft (protecting your security, *not* locking you in of course).

      The people putting together the new standards are learning each time. Each new generation of DRM is stronger than the past.

      The argument that the content providers will be sensitive is flawed. If DRM is brought into a household as a Trojan Horse (as it is with Apple's iPod), by the time anyone realises, it is too late. The content providers and the hardware provider that has managed to lock in their customers for life are both happy happy happy.

      The battles won so far have been minor, the acceptance and promotion of DRM above copyright by governments has spread through the whole world.

      The only choice left is- will you be a Microsoft family or an Apple family?

      • ATMs are not the same thing as DRM

        on several very relevant levels, ATMs are inherently more secure. The biggest one is that the security logic is on a server controlled by the bank, whereas the DRM logic is on my computer. If I had the inclination to hack an ATM (which I don't), I'd need to PHYSICALLY break into a bank before I could break out the hacking and cracking tricks. With DRM, all a potential hacker/cracker needs is to turn on their PC and fire up their favorite hex editors, disassemblers and debuggers. From there, for a sufficiently skilled person, it is just a matter of time.

        I could continue with the technical theory, but theres something I'd like to point out that really drives this home. My bank has a little notice on it that AFAI can remember says words to the effect of "If you see a strange device attached to this machine, please do not use this ATM and inform the bank".

        I hope the ATM's you use have the same notice. Those bank ATMs HAVE been compromised. At uni, I had the pleasure of being taught by a lecturer who also consulted for major banks on their security. He told me any system can be compromised. You just have to raise the bar as high as possible so very few people have sufficient skill, and then aim to slow those people down as much as you can. DRM is a VERY high profile target. A lot of very skilled people are taking an interest in breaking it. It's not if, it's _when_ and _how often_ are we going to see it broken. I bet this ones going to get very bitter and messy real soon :(

        Aplogogies for the length of the post. I had a lot to say, and wanted to provide as much evidence as I could without losing the point. Hope I got the balance right between soundbite-isms and formal argument ;)
  • The market will decide

    Glad to see you spreading the word about the insidiousness of DRM. It's not the particular restrictions they're imposing on us now, it's the idea that they can change the terms of usage at any time without any recourse from the consumer. It's like signing a contract that says you are obligated to the terms of the contract, but the other party isn't and they can change the terms whenever they feel like it. No reasonable person in their right mind would ever sign on for such a deal. TiVO and Apple are great examples.

    Some recommended reading--Cory Doctorow of the EFF has been giving talks to computer companies on what this all means to them, and potential strategies they should consider employing:

    All that said, I think the most compelling anti-DRM argument that can be made is that it is a horrible business move. It's not something the consumer wants. It causes your new products to work less well than your old products. That's not very compelling if you're trying to get someone to spend lots of money to "upgrade". My prediction is that the media companies will try to impose more and more restrictions upon us, and by doing so, they'll see more and more people abandon their products. We have so many options as far as entertainment goes that there's no one industry that is invulnerable. You'll also see a major rise in copyright infringement and the use of p2p networks. If it is impossible for consumers to get the media they want in a workable form, they'll find a way around the DRM. It's a losing battle for the media/electronics companies. All it will do is suck money out of their pockets, money that will be wasted on systems that won't work and will cause them to lose customers.

    So my advice is to act like an enlightened consumer. If you can't get the song you want the way you want it, don't buy that song. Go buy an ice cream cone instead.
    tic swayback
    • Great advice.

      "So my advice is to act like an enlightened consumer. If you can't get the song you want the way you want it, don't buy that song. Go buy an ice cream cone instead."

      In the end anyone who goes ahead and buys this stuff, must not be all that bothered by it after all.

      My real concern though is that the whole thing smells of collusion to me. If there were active competition amongst artists, this stuff would work itself out very nicely. However, a very small group of companies controlls the distribution of 99% of all music. Even worse, somehow they are allowed to work together to come to agreements (implicit or otherwise) on how they will market their products. Where are the trust busters?
      • Must not be bothered by it?

        >In the end anyone who goes ahead and buys this stuff, must not be all that bothered by it after all.

        baaaaaaaa.. the sound sheeple make as the wool is sheared off their backs and pulled directly over the their eyes.... (shall we list the number of times ignorance has gotten us into trouble before?)
    • By an ice cream cone instead?

      Seems like Rocky Road is the only choice. :(
      • Lots of choices

        That's the thing--you have tons of entertainment choices. Don't
        like the music DRM? Buy a video game, or a DVD. Or download
        something without the DRM from Magnatune. Or go for a walk or
        buy a book or learn to play the guitar. The RIAA has no monopoly
        on entertainment, something they're going to have to learn. They
        can't get away with unreasonable terms, because, in the long run,
        we don't need their product.
        tic swayback