Engadget editorial on DRM completely misses the point

Stephen Speicher has posted an editorial on Engadget that makes it sound as if the reason there's so much opposition to DRM is that people want the freedom to pirate content.  The title of the post is Digital Content: Why the sense of entitlement.
Written by David Berlind, Inactive

Stephen Speicher has posted an editorial on Engadget that makes it sound as if the reason there's so much opposition to DRM is that people want the freedom to pirate content.  The title of the post is Digital Content: Why the sense of entitlement. Wrote Speicher:

There is something that I've never really understood when it comes to the digital entertainment debate. That is: where do people get their sense of entitlement with regard to content?....After all, it's not really our content. At the end of the day if that's how content owners choose to sell it, isn't that their right?...Somewhere along the line people started to lose perspective in this whole DRM debate....for some odd reason, people determined that they were the ones who should choose what was right and wrong when it came to the buying and selling entertainment content. Instead of the all-too-familiar set of rules for selling goods (i.e. the seller and the buyer mutually agree on the terms of sale; if either of the parties doesn't agree, there is no transfer of goods) consumers felt perfectly justified in writing their own personal rules....Law-abiding, moral people do things with entertainment content that they wouldn't dream of doing with physical goods. Can you imagine walking into a restaurant which you knew to be overpriced, eating, and then leaving without paying just because the you felt the place was a rip-off and not worth the prices they charged? Worse yet, can you imagine doing it the next day also?.....Yet people feel no such compunction about appropriating media content without paying anyone for it.

That's where he lost me. It reminds me of the Net Neutrality debate where the arguments (both for and against) have been distorted by people who haven't been paying close enough attention to the details. Somehow, others catch on to these distorted views and eventually, the truth has a much harder time rising above the noise.

Stephen, the majority of the people who voice opposition to DRM, including me, have no intention of misappropriating anyone's content.  You're absolutely right in noting some of the existing practices of piracy that take place on behalf of some unscrupulous individuals.  But those who oppose DRM are not asking for new rules that wouldn't otherwise apply.  We're asking that the baby not get thrown-out with the bathwater. The rules used to be that you'd buy a record, a cassette, or a CD and you'd be able to use them in any device that was designed to work with those mediums.

With DRM, the rules were actually changed on us (not the other way around). Now, we buy the same content we were buying before, but in the new medium of digital bits (as opposed to vinyl, tape, or CDs). But the one problem is that we can't take those bits and use them on any device designed to work with bits. It's the equivalent of having to buy one Fleetwood Mac CD for your car, one for home stereo, one for your boom box, etc. Those are different rules if you ask me.  It wasn't us copyright-respecting people that have no interest in emulating your "friend who buys music via an online store and then immediately torrents 'clean' copies" that came up with these new rules.

Spiecher goes onto say:

The obvious answer is that people have no respect for goods where the marginal cost of production is zero or close to it. It doesn't matter that work went into its production. It doesn't matter that the sales of current goods pay for development of future goods. It seems to only matter what production costs. And, of course, what the consumer's self-proclaimed set of rules are.

It's a convenient vetting of the cost issue to support his argument but completely ignores some of the other efficiencies gained by the new ecosystem. In the old physical goods ecosystem (which still exists), content owners bear the cost of manufacturing, packaging, and retail channel support.  In many industries (I don't know about the entertainment business), retail channel support is actually the most expensive item. That's not to say that some of the costs mentioned above (production, advertising, etc.) aren't real. But let's be honest. As the world completes its shift to bits (as it did from other media), entertainment companies will begin to recognize significant savings.  In fact, I would argue that it's DRM that's stalling the death of the existing media types (like CDs).  Sure, retail stores should and can exist. But why must it involve physical media? 

Why shouldn't you be able to walk into a "record store", listen to some music or watch some videos at a kiosk designed for that very application, make your selections, pay with your credit card (or cash), and have the content downloaded to your device right there on the spot? Think of the benefits.  All that shipping that's avoided.  All that packaging that's harmful to mother Earth eliminated.  Less square footage to operate a retail outlet and ultimately less energy costs.  The main reason we can't do this today is because of DRM.

In fairness, Spiechert acknowledges he may be missing some points and asks for feedback regarding his opinion (delivered!). But, so as not to propogate distortions of the truth, I would have rather just seen the questions without the commentary.  Yes, there are pirates out there and I agree that it's a thorny issue.  But patting every customer down in a head-to-toe airport-security like frisking is simply not the answer.

Thanks to ZDNet reader Steven Ackerman for the pointer.  

Editorial standards