DRM not exactly sumci to my ears

In the music, publishing, and video industries, there is an active, and expensive, search for solutions to the whole problem of digital copyrights. There is a strong, even unassailable, belief that a technological solution is possible. That there is some, yet to be discovered way, to impose limited access to certain types of intellectual property. The Holy Grail they’re searching for, is a method to force us to pay for each listen, view or read of a published work.

The sad news is, lots of money will be unwisely spent on Digital Rights Management (DRM). Likewise, a lot of companies will promise, and fail to deliver, secure DRM processes. Regardless of the amount of money spent, there is nothing anyone can do to a digital publication of a book, song, or movie, that can stop the creation of an unprotected copy with minimal effort.

I do realize, that this statement is a form of technological heresy. Nevertheless, I think the central flaw of DRM is easy enough to demonstrate with just a few examples. A clue to this simple process lies in the title of this article.

For the record (no pun intended) I am not one of those who believe “information wants to be free.” I am a firm believer that the creator of a body of work, owns it. That those who use that work without compensating the owner, according to the owner’s conditions/constraints, is committing a form of theft. That said, I’m also practical enough to realize that enforcement, not possession, is nine tenths of the law.

The easiest example at the moment, is in the music industry. There is a notion we can somehow encrypt a music file so it can only be played from a particular “player application.” A fee must be paid to an Internet service, which in turn provides a “key” that will allow “x” plays of that particular music file, on that particular computer or music device.

Let’s assume all the little details of this are ironed out. Let’s assume the hackers of the world are totally stymied by the encryption, that they can’t hack the player application, they’re incapable of comparing files bit by bit and resetting usage counters etc. etc. I know these assumptions are pretty wild, but for the sake of argument, assume this the hackers are defeated. Assume that somehow this is truly an impenetrable process. Have they achieved their goal? Sadly no. Not even close.

At some point in this complex, and therefore expensive, process, the music must be sent to the speakers so that I can enjoy it. At some point it must become “music to my ears.” At that point, I can capture it. I can record it digitally… I now have a copy of the music, that is nearly, not totally, indistinguishable from the copy hidden within the depths of the DRM. I do not have to set up a recording studio to create a copy without background noise. I simply feed the sound signal directly into a computer.

The same is true for e-books, I can capture the text and images directly from the signals sent to the screen. Likewise, for video output. None of this really very new. Bootleg copies of first run movies were once created by sitting in a cinema with a hand camera, today you download them direct from the producer. When the movie is digital, rather than film, it suggests that technology can somehow protect the images. In reality it merely makes it easier to steal.

This would all be a rather academic discussion, except for the continued search for technological solutions, for self inflicted problems. When we create digital copies of anything, we make it too easy to copy, and lose control over copyright. It sounds like a modern variation of the joke that starts “Doctor! Doctor! It hurts when I do this!”

Not all digital works are so easily stolen. Interactive creations don’t exist as a static entity and therefore can’t be stolen on the fly. An example of a highly interactive work, is the Ceremony of Innocence by Peter Gabriel’s Real World Multimedia company. It isn’t static. It’s existence, and enjoyment, relies on the interaction between the viewer/reader and the creator’s work. If it were captured from the screen and speakers, it would merely represent a single slice of many enjoyable experiences.

de Jager is a well known, intellectual capitalist, keynote speaker/consultant on issues relating to change and the management of technology. You can contact him at [email protected].

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