Communicating freely

Archive for January, 2006

DRM is not evil. People are evil.

Friday, January 27th, 2006

This is a comment based entirely on my personal opinion, and does not reflect the opinion of any organization or project that I am a member of.  I just wanted to voice some thoughts (and perhaps get some feedback) about some things that have been concerning me lately.

At the moment there appears to be a move to demonify Digital Rights Management (DRM) in the free software world.  I’m not sure that this position is entirely justified.  DRM is about imposing certain restrictions on digital media.  More specifically it is about restricting usage of material that is owned by someone else.  It is a wide-ranging field, potentially covering everything from copyrighted work through to the protection of general intellectual property.  Ultimately DRM is a field of technology, and is a science based around attempting to get certain predictable results.  In the case of DRM this means preventing people distributing certain material.

Some groups are very interested in DRM.  Copyright holders like the music and film industry are feeling quite threatened by the potential for digital media to allow unlimited free (as in beer) reproduction of copyrighted works.  These include music, movies and TV shows.  If people freely distribute these works without paying, the music and film industry will lose revenue.  This is an untenable and negative situation.  Whether or not the music and film industry charge excessive amounts for their material, they are copyright holders with original creations.  No one holds the right to restrict their freedoms as creators, and to determine for them how their original work will be used.

In an ideal world DRM would be a simple thing.  It would mean that if I bought a music track I could listen to it, I could use it like a CD, but I could not make copies to share illegally with other people.  The author of the music track, as the original creator, would say “no, I don’t want you to do that as I want to sell this track.”  Ladies and gentlemen, that’s fair enough.  A creator has spoken, and we should respect that.

The problem is that we are not in an ideal world.  DRM is being misused quite badly by people who are greedy.  The music and film industries have discovered that digital media are a lot more controllable than previous generations of technology, and they are trying to take advantage of that fact.  Under the guise of fair DRM use, they are attempting to impose restrictions that inhibit our use of copyrighted material far more than in previous years.  Let me give you some quick examples:

Apple’s fairplay system allows you to install music on up to five machines, and complains if you burn too many CDs with the same play list.  Fair enough, but what happens if I own more than five machines?  If I have purchased the right to listen to a music track, I have the right to listen to it.  Apple should not be able to determine how many computers I can own.  That’s insane.

A DRM restriction protects copyrighted work.  But copyright ends.  At the moment there is a simple method for material entering the public domain, namely fifty years after the death of an author.  However, DRM restrictions do not take this into account.  Fifty years after the death of an artist, the DRM protecting their work will still be in force.  This is actually going against copyright law, and is wrong morally.

Yes, there are problems with the way DRM is being used.  These are real and tangible problems that need to be dealt with.  However, there is another side to this issue.  There are significant numbers of people completely rubbishing the very concept of DRM, and therefore implicitly suggesting that a copyright holder should not have the ability to determine how their work is distributed.

Perhaps the problem is that people are confusing things.  Some people are equating freedom with the imposition of negative freedom on others (advocates of stealing music and film are taking away the freedom of the original creators to determine the use of their own work), and some people are equating freedom with zero cost (for example, the inhabitants of cyberspace who suggest that free software is about free beer).  Neither of these stances are sensible.  Calling something that restricts another person freedom is not freedom, it’s domination.  Asking for free software (as in beer) is asking for something for nothing.  That’s greed.  It has very little to do with libre or Freedom, which is what the Free Software Foundation, the GPL and most of the open source world is about.

We need to separate the idea that something has to be for nothing from Free Software.  It’s not about money.  It’s about sharing technology, and freedom.  It’s about giving something back to people, and lending a helping hand to people.  That pushes us all forward. You cannot equate that with the right to steals a copy of a movie.  It’s simply not the same thing.  Copyrighted artistic work is an original creation, and the legal author of the work has the right to determine how the work is used.  In the digital world this means working out ways to limit the free distribution of certain works, and that’s where DRM comes in.

Just as some people are confusing free beer and Freedom in the fight against unfair DRM, there are people who are using DRM as a tool to attempt to restrict user rights.  Both groups are wrong.  Both groups are trying to determine how other people’s rights – above and beyond the legal copyright system – should be determined.  DRM is a tool.  It can be a fair tool, protecting authors and empowering users precisely as copyright law permits, or it can be abused to impose unfair restrictions.  But I don’t think DRM is the real problem here.  The real problem is that people are greedy.  Some people want something for nothing, and some people want to control everything always.  

We need to find a reasonable balance.  We need to protect author’s rights, and we need to protect user’s rights.  That means finding a sensible compromise.  That means working out a DRM that prevents people freely sharing copyrighted work that author’s do not want freely distributed.  That means a DRM that applies real copyright law, and does not try to determine how a user lives their life.  Personally I would support such a DRM system, and use it willingly.