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International Day Against DRM

Wednesday, May 6th, 2015

A discussion on the International Day Against DRM got my attention, and instead of replying on the site in question, I thought I’d write something about it here. The assertion was that “this war has been lost“, to which it was noted that “ownership isn’t for everyone”.

True enough: people are becoming conditioned to accept that they can enjoy nice things but not have any control of them or, indeed, any right to secure them for themselves. So, you effectively have the likes of Spotify effectively reinventing commercial radio where the interface is so soul-crushingly awful that it’s almost more convenient to have to call the radio station to request that they play a track. Or at least it was when I was confronted with it on someone’s smartphone fairly recently.

Meanwhile, the ignorant will happily trumpet the corporate propaganda claiming that those demanding digital rights are “communists”, when the right to own things to enjoy on your own terms has actually been taken away by those corporations and their pocket legislators. Maybe people should remember that when they’re next out shopping for gadgets or, heaven forbid, voting in a public election.

An Aside on Music

Getting older means that one can happily and justifiably regard a lot of new cultural output as inferior to what came before, which means that if one happened to stop buying music when DRM got imposed, deciding not to bother with new music doesn’t create such a big problem after all. I have plenty of legitimately purchased music to listen to already, and I didn’t need to have the potential enjoyment of any new work inconvenienced by only being able to play that work on certain devices or on somebody else’s terms.

Naturally, the music industry blames the decline in new music sales on “piracy”, but in fact people just got used to getting their music in more convenient ways, or they decided that they already have enough music and don’t really need any more. I remember how some people would buy a CD or two every weekend just as a treat or to have something new to listen to, and the music industry made a very nice living from this convenient siphoning of society’s disposable income, but that was just a bubble: the prices were low enough for people to not really miss the money, but the prices were also high enough and provided generous-enough margins for the music industry to make a lot of money from such casual purchasers while they could.

Note that I emphasised “potential” above. That’s another thing that the music business got away with for years: the loyalty of their audiences. How many people bought new material from an artist they liked only to discover that it wasn’t as good as they’d hoped? After a while, people just lose interest. This despite the effective state subsidy of the music business through public broadcasters endlessly and annoyingly playing and promoting that industry’s proprietary content. And there is music from even a few years ago that you wouldn’t be able to persuade anyone to sell you any more. It is like they don’t want your money, or at least if it is not being handed over on precisely their terms, which for a long time now has seemed to involve the customer going back and paying them again and again for something they already bought (under threat of legal penalties for “format shifting” in order to compel such repeat business).

It isn’t a surprise that the focus now is on music (and video) streaming and that actually buying media to play offline is becoming harder and harder. The focus of the content industries is on making it more and more difficult to acquire their content in ways that make it possible to experience that content on sustainable terms. Just as standard music CDs became corrupted with DRM mechanisms that bring future access to the content into doubt, so have newer technologies been encumbered with inconvenient and illegitimate mechanisms to deny people legitimate access. And as the campaign against DRM notes, some of the outcomes are simply discriminatory and shameful.

Our Legacy

Even content that has not been “protected” has proven difficult to recover simply due to technological progress and material, cultural and intellectual decay. It would appal many people that anyone would put additional barriers around content just to maximise revenues when the risk is that the “protectors” of such content will either inadvertently (their competence not being particularly noted) or deliberately (their vindictiveness being especially noted) consign that content to the black hole of prehistory just to stop anyone else actually enjoying it without them benefiting from the act. In some cases, one would think that content destruction is really what the supposed guardians of the content actually want, especially when there’s no more easy money to be made.

Of course, such profiteers don’t actually care about things like cultural legacy or the historical record, but society should care about such things. Regardless of who paid for something to be made – and frequently it was the artist, with the publishers only really offering financing that would most appropriately be described as “predatory” – such content is part of our culture and our legacy. That is why we should resist DRM, we should not support its proponents when buying devices and content or when electing our representatives, and it is why we should try and limit copyright terms so that legacy content may stand a chance of being recovered and responsibly archived.

We owe it to ourselves and to future generations to resist DRM.