– Update –
Davin just sent me a similar link that someone wrote as a way of explaining to his Dad what is happening. I find the guy’s tone a little bit acerbic and arrogant, but I’d be a hypocrite if I complained about that too much. Said link is here.
Lately, I’ve been ranting endlessly about how annoyed I get when companies punish the very consumers that buy into their products.
I love good TV shows, and when I find a show that I really like, I can watch it over and over. I like to study the details, the humour, and the minutae, and really figure out why the show compels me. Is it the timing? Why is that particular line so funny? How come I’m willing to accept it when George Costanza does one thing, but I absolutely despise it when Ray Romano does the same thing?
Given this mini-obsession, I own a sizable DVD collection, and push those DVDs into the player fairly frequently. It is a constant source of irritation having to sit through three different warnings and a host of advertisements, everytime I turn on my TV to watch the DVD that I have legally purchased (they’ve done us the service of disabling our skip functionality now so don’t accidentally skip over the whole warning). Most ironic of all is that the three warnings are all sledge-hammering into my face that it is a crime to pirate and illegally copy the DVDs. Come on people! I frickin’ bought the DVD! Can’t we just relax a little and at the very least let me fast-forward through this junk? Especially frustrating is the fact that I can just go online and download the entire season without any of this chaff added in.
Digital Rights Management (DRM) is the ongoing attempt by companies to lock down digital content, and prevent us from doing things like copying music files. There are two schools of thought on this: One, that you need to stop people from illegally copying your intellectual property (eBooks, music, movies, tv shows), and, two, that you don’t have the right to stop people from making legal backups of the media that they have legally purchased.
I’m not a fan of DRM, as I think that it takes an approach that attempts to lock down and repress what the changing technology is becoming capable of doing. What we really need to do is shift our paradigm and develop new ways of thinking about technology, intellectual property, and the ownership of that property. The digital world is an approximation of the analog one, but that does not mean that our laws governing one can be neatly shifted across and overlayed on the other.
One recent example of Microsoft (commonly criticized, but fairly – they’re a large proponent of DRM) boning people that have legally bought music from their online digital store can be found here. The long and short: people that have legally purchased music from Microsoft’s online store have until August 31, 2008 to finalize the five computers that they wish this music to be playable on. Once that date has passed, no new computers can be added, and no media can transferred. What does this mean? Well, for one, if you upgrade your computer, your music is gone. For another, if you want to upgrade to a new hard-drive, you’re losing your music.
Just one more example of the DRM people getting things wrong, and in the end, disenfranchising and alienating the consumer base that supports them. This isn’t unprecedented, and is in fact just one more item in a long list of bung-ups. Recently consumers have reported problems with Windows Vista, whereby the expensive monitor that they bought won’t play at full resolution, because Windows Vista cannot confirm that the device falls in-line with its DRM-policies. As a result, it downshifts the resolution and plays a crappier image. See below for a more complete explanation of what is going on here.
DRM sucks. I agree that artists, authors, and other people generating creative content deserve the right to some kind of ownership of that content, but the manner in which this is being implemented seems entirely driven by companies that don’t have a whole lot of affiliation with these people (if you know anyone that actually records music, ask them how much money they gotten back from the levies that we pay on blank media here in Canada), nor with the consumer’s that they are punching in the sexy bits.
The up-side to all of this is that there will always be mavericks out there that create media players that ignore consumer-boning rules like this, decrypt media files and allow you to convert them to open formats, and that do not do things like downgrade the quality of the video. The only real result is that Vista and its ilk make the consumer work harder to play the files they’ve already paid for.
* Once you move content from an analog format (TV’s, for example, up until recently) to a digital one, you make it much easier to grab and manipulate that content. Typically the way to prevent people from making copies of digital media (illegal or otherwise), this has been restricted at the level of the media player you use to play your content, as well as the file format that it is stored in. If you can encrypt the media file, and then make it so that only your special media player knows how to decrypt that file, you’ve got a pretty decent way to stop people from copying your data, because now you can also add a requirement into your media player that it only play this video if it’s on machine X.
There’s a new wrinkle involved though. Typically, once the special media player plays our special encrypted media file, the unencrypted digital signal is then sent to the monitor, which displays that signal. Horray, I’ve got a movie – I bet you I still have to sit through some bullshit guilt-trip about my kid stealing because he saw me stealing cable. Because the output that goes to a digital monitor is unencrypted, I can theoretically take a device that tells the computer that it is a monitor, but is really just a box that records that unencrypted signal. Now all I have to do is play my video using the special media player once, capture the output with my magic box, and then save that new file. Now I have an unencrypted file that I can transfer to any of my other computers, store for backup, or, give to my friends. In order to counteract this, Windows Vista will downgrade the quality of your video when you are outputting to monitors and other devices that it does not recognize and know as “following appropriate DRM policies”.