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Walt Mossberg on DRM

I'd bet on serial victories: first for the immoveables, then for the unopposibles.

A November 2005 polemic by CNET's Molly Wood led me to an interesting column by The Wall Street Journal's Walther Mossberg. Here's part of his discussion of consumer DRM issues:

For some activists, the very idea of Digital Rights Management is anathema. They believe that once a consumer legally buys a song or a video clip, the companies that sold them have no right to limit how the consumer uses them, any more than a car company should be able to limit what you can do with a car you've bought.

But DRM is seen as a lifesaver by the music, television and movie industries. The companies believe they need DRM technology to block the possibility that a song or video can be copied in large quantities and distributed over the Internet, thus robbing them of legitimate sales.

In my view, both sides have a point, but the real issue isn't DRM itself -- it's the manner in which DRM is used by copyright holders. Companies have a right to protect their property, and DRM is one means to do so. But treating all consumers as potential criminals by using DRM to overly limit their activities is just plain wrong.

Let's be clear: The theft of intellectual property on the Internet is a real problem. Millions of copies of songs, TV shows and movies are being distributed over the Internet by people who have no legal right to do so, robbing media companies and artists of rightful compensation for their work.

Even if you think the record labels and movie studios are stupid and greedy, as many do, that doesn't entitle you to steal their products. If your local supermarket were run by people you didn't like, and charged more than you thought was fair, you wouldn't be entitled to shoplift Cheerios from its shelves.

On the other hand, I believe that consumers should have broad leeway to use legally purchased music and video for personal, noncommercial purposes in any way they want -- as long as they don't engage in mass distribution. They should be able to copy it to as many personal digital devices as they own, convert it to any format those devices require, and play it in whatever locations, at whatever times, they choose.

This seems to me to be both eminently reasonable and ultimately inevitable; but also something a lot of digital content providers will fight tooth and nail -largely because doing so is in the best interests of the lawyers who will advise them on whether to fight it or not.

There is some potential here for a hail Mary pass to succeed: quick action by the U.S. Congress or the British Parliament could turn Mossberg's prescription to national law and thus drive adoption elsewhere, but it's much less likely, I believe, than a long grim fight.

You wouldn't think there would be much IT content to this debate - but there is, and it's not limited to Apple's temporary success with its ipod and associated music (and soon) video services. No, the big guy putting his largest and most maligned parts on the block here is Microsoft - they're betting the farm on making themselves, via the nexus software being built into the firmware on the X360 and its successors, the prefered DRM provider for digital content producers worldwide. And this, remember, from a company that initially grew market share (and is still doing so in some countries) by silently encouraging "illegal" copying.

You've heard of the unopposible force meeting the immoveable object? Stay tuned to DRM: as obviously sensible solutions meet established agendas, I'd bet on serial victories: first for the immoveables, then for the unopposibles.