Friday, November 18, 2005

Give them enough rope...

(Thanks to Nadja for the link) This has been a great week for copyfighters, digital advocates and other internet pundits who dislike, loathe, hate or plainly distrust DRM. The Sony DRM debacle has done more for the cause against DRM than any rousing speech. When people are faced with a potential threat to their computers, they will react negatively. Moreover, this has proven many people right about the reasons to mistrust restrictive copy protection measures. As if this was not enough, Sony has been warned by the American Department of Homeland Security no less.

One could be forgiven for sounding optimistic and declare the death of DRM. Consumers will never again trust such technologies, right? I would not be so optimistic. Firstly, the people who have made a stink about this are still the technocratic minority that inhabits cyberspace. If I ask a random person in the street about the Sony DRM scandal, they will probably just look at me as if I was speaking another language. Secondly, DRM products are still popular if they are non-intrusive, it seems like iTunes has not been affected whatsoever by the scandal despite the fact that they use DRM.

There is a lesson to be had here. Not all DRMs are the same. In the widest possible sense, a DRM is a technical measure that is used to "handle the description, layering, analysis, valuation, trading and monitoring of the rights held over a digital work." This includes pernicious control such as Sony, but it can be used for less damaging and more benign uses. When we are talking about Sony-like DRM, a more accurate description is to use the term Technical Protection Measures (TPM). Why is this? Because generally it is wrong to attack an entire technology just because of the potential malign uses that it may have. Many critics of the IP system have spent the last few years arguing that P2P technology should not be completely thrown out. Isn't this what some of these advocates are asking of DRM technology? It may have good uses.

Still, this event may prove to be a watershed in the development of DRM. The Sony scandal could be used to make regulatory calls against more restrictive DRMs, and perhaps even a re-think of the ludicrously unworkable anti-circumvention measures that exist in copyright legislations around the world. After all, if you remove Sony's DRM, you may be infringing those anti-circumvention measures.

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