DRM: The Shackles and Chains of Digital Media

Recent months have borne witness to a grand spectacle of geek-executive hot air and ballyhooing that all came to a head last week with a public letter from Apple’s Steve Jobs.

The issue being so publicly debated centres around Digital Rights Management, or “DRM.” This is a system of controlling how we, as consumers, use the entertainment media we purchase.

DRM, for example, protects DVDs from being copied. It’s also used on some CDs to ensure we don’t share the music we buy amongst our friends.

One of the most prominent examples of DRM is media that’s purchased online, in particular through Apple’s iTunes Store.

Any media you purchase through iTunes is controlled by Apple’s DRM system, called “FairPlay.” FairPlay limits the playback of media you buy to certain technological environments.

Apple’s iPod, obviously, is FairPlay turf. The iTunes software on either a Mac or PC is also sanctioned ground. But it about ends there.

If you try to import your iTunes music into Windows Media Player, for example, no dice. Or if you load the tracks onto a MP3 player other than an iPod, you’re just wasting space.

iTunes isn’t the only place this is true, however. Pretty much any media content you buy online is protected and controlled by DRM. And each DRM tends to be different. (A notable exception is the independently-oriented eMusic, which sells tracks in an unprotected and uncontrolled format.)

Because it’s the largest online media retailer, Apple’s taken a lot of heat from many countries in the European Union lately because the company refuses to license its dominant FairPlay DRM system to other media providers.

Currently only Apple can develop and manufacture software and devices that will support media purchased through iTunes. Being that they control over three-quarters of the digital media market, that makes sense for them. They alone control all revenue streams and have almost no real competition.

Many European governments argue that it’s in consumers’ interests that Apple license their FairPlay technology. They want other manufacturers’ devices and software to be able to play media purchased through iTunes.

Which brings me to Mr. Jobs’ letter. In an effort to deflect responsibility (and likely avoid charges of antitrust), Jobs blames the media producers, such as the record companies and film studios, for requiring DRM on digital media. He casts Apple, essentially, as an innocent middle party that only enforces media owners’ demands.

While there’s some truth to these charges, Jobs’ argument has substantial flaws in it.

For example, Jobs is the largest single shareholder in Disney, which should enable him to at least introduce an anti-DRM policy at that company, something he hasn’t done.

Additionally, within iTunes there are thousands of independent artists who resell their music DRM-free in other marketplaces, yet iTunes requires that all media carry the FairPlay DRM. Why won’t Apple permit them to strip their tracks of the FairPlay DRM system within iTunes?

Another argument in Jobs’ letter centres around the issue of “interoperability.” He suggests Apple’s FairPlay works very well becaused it exists in a closed technology ecosystem. Only Apple can develop technology to support FairPlay and therefore Apple will maintain an adequate level of playback quality for all media.

It’s that old too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen argument. Jobs believes that if Apple licenses FairPlay, other companies would just screw it up.

So instead of licensing FairPlay, Jobs has another, more radical suggestion: kill DRM altogether. That would mean media could be sold without encumbrance of any kind. Any media you buy online would play anywhere.

Perhaps surprisingly, this idea has widespread industry support.
Late last year Microsoft’s Bill Gates publicly stated that he believed DRM was bad. Instead of buying music online, Gates suggests that “people should just buy a CD and rip it.” (Oddly, he said this just before his company introduced Windows Vista, the most DRM-laden operating system ever. Forbes recommends against upgrading to Vista because of this, in fact.)

An executive at EMI also stated that DRM is bad for consumers and that his company is considering licensing the majority of its catalogue without DRM restrictions later this year. Executives from Yahoo and Monster Cable have spoken up in support of Jobs and also stated that they do not support DRM on digital media.

Unfortunately, most media companies such as Warner and Sony are insisting DRM is here to stay. They argue that it’s essential to protect their intellectual property ownership rights —  and their economic interests.

If nothing else, Jobs’ letter has torn open the issue of DRM and forced companies and executives across the board to take a public stand.

It’s also underscored probably the one truth about DRM: it’s not good for consumers.

In a sense, DRM is simply an exhibition of media owners’ lack of trust in us. They assume that every media consumer engages in content piracy. DRM is a system that frames us all as criminals who must be penalized without any charge being laid.

Unfortunately, as a result of this — and despite the politicized hot air of Steve Jobs and his corporate cohorts — DRM is likely here to stay.