Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The end of DRM?

Steve Jobs may have made Bev Oda's job easier. Balancing the different views on digital rights management (DRM) has been a key factor holding up Oda's legislation on copyright. DRM is used to protect music, movies and other digital content. In a recent essay, Jobs envisages a world without DRM. He makes a convincing case:

The third alternative is to abolish DRMs entirely. Imagine a world where every online store sells DRM-free music encoded in open licensable formats. In such a world, any player can play music purchased from any store, and any store can sell music which is playable on all players. This is clearly the best alternative for consumers, and Apple would embrace it in a heartbeat. If the big four music companies would license Apple their music without the requirement that it be protected with a DRM, we would switch to selling only DRM-free music on our iTunes store. Every iPod ever made will play this DRM-free music.

Why would the big four music companies agree to let Apple and others distribute their music without using DRM systems to protect it? The simplest answer is because DRMs haven’t worked, and may never work, to halt music piracy. Though the big four music companies require that all their music sold online be protected with DRMs, these same music companies continue to sell billions of CDs a year which contain completely unprotected music. That’s right! No DRM system was ever developed for the CD, so all the music distributed on CDs can be easily uploaded to the Internet, then (illegally) downloaded and played on any computer or player.

In 2006, under 2 billion DRM-protected songs were sold worldwide by online stores, while over 20 billion songs were sold completely DRM-free and unprotected on CDs by the music companies themselves. The music companies sell the vast majority of their music DRM-free, and show no signs of changing this behavior, since the overwhelming majority of their revenues depend on selling CDs which must play in CD players that support no DRM system.

So if the music companies are selling over 90 percent of their music DRM-free, what benefits do they get from selling the remaining small percentage of their music encumbered with a DRM system? There appear to be none. If anything, the technical expertise and overhead required to create, operate and update a DRM system has limited the number of participants selling DRM protected music. If such requirements were removed, the music industry might experience an influx of new companies willing to invest in innovative new stores and players. This can only be seen as a positive by the music companies.

Much of the concern over DRM systems has arisen in European countries. Perhaps those unhappy with the current situation should redirect their energies towards persuading the music companies to sell their music DRM-free. For Europeans, two and a half of the big four music companies are located right in their backyard. The largest, Universal, is 100% owned by Vivendi, a French company. EMI is a British company, and Sony BMG is 50% owned by Bertelsmann, a German company. Convincing them to license their music to Apple and others DRM-free will create a truly interoperable music marketplace. Apple will embrace this wholeheartedly.

All the music on my iPod is DRM free. Virtually all of it is ripped from my CD collection. My experiences with protected content have not been positive. I refuse to buy it. I only buy CDs.

I do have two DRM-protected tracks (Iggy Pop's I'm a Conservative and Vaccination Scar by the Tragically Hip) on my computer that I once downloaded from PureTracks with a digital coupon I received with some cheese I bought. Unfortunately I have been unable to play them. I've "refreshed" the licence at least three times, but they no longer work. That is far too much trouble to play something for which I own the rights. DRM has got to go.

Steve Jobs is on the right track. DRM is not worth the hassle for consumers, and its ability to protect the rights of creators is seriously in question. I hope Oda is listening. Protecting DRM has no place in Canadian copyright leglislation.