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Down With DRM

I can no longer recall the exact date, but at some point in the recent past I stepped over the line and became a criminal. I didn't steal from anyone's home. I certainly didn't cause anyone physical harm. In fact, I didn't even leave my office chair. Nevertheless, my dastardly deed landed me squarely on the wrong side of the law.

So what had I done? Well, I had removed the embedded DRM from a digital music file. A music file I purchased. Legally. Confused? Yeah, me too.

Let me start with a short primer for the unfamiliar. DRM, or Digital Rights Management, is the technology employed by providers of digital content to “protect” their products from copying. Perhaps the most widely known DRM in use today is at the Apple iTunes store. Any content purchased through the store contains embedded DRM limiting its use to your iPod devices and up to five authorized computers running iTunes software. Want to listen on your snazzy new non-iPod music player? Sorry. What about your Ubuntu system without iTunes software? No dice. Well, you could burn a playlist to CD, but isn’t the iTunes store supposedly all about convenience? Now, I've singled out Apple here simply as an illustrative example. They certainly aren't the worst DRM offender. In fact, they may actually lead us out of the long, scary DRM tunnel - but more on that later.

As many of you are certainly aware, copy protection has long been considered a necessity by the entertainment industry. DRM is essentially a digital upgrade to the same technology that made it damn near impossible to make a decent VHS copy in years past. Things just got dialed up a notch when the wrong people realized that Joe Consumer was living more and more of his life in the digital realm with his snazzy new digital toys. In order to sleep at night these folks needed a way to make sure Joe wouldn’t be pirating songs and movies left and right. Trusting Joe with the content he purchased was obviously insane, so DRM became the flawed security blanket under which the industry could hide.

As I mentioned previously, DRM is also what led me to my life of crime. Someone, somewhere was so terrified I might commit one crime that I was actually driven to commit another. Fear driving customer service policy - it doesn’t quite add up.

Now, in order to keep this reasonable, I’ll spare you a laundry list of the technical issues plaguing DRM. As an exercise, you may want to ferret out some of the lowlights or check out what the EFF has to say on the topic. But moving on, that possible light at the end of the tunnel I eluded to earlier.

It seems Steve Jobs has decided that the time may have come to put DRM out to pasture. After publishing his “Thoughts on Music” essay a few months back, Steve has now managed to forge a partnership with major-label EMI to sell their entire music catalog through the iTunes store sans DRM. Shortly after this agreement was made public, Amazon followed suit with the announcement of a DRM-free music store to debut later this year. I honestly think these events may signal the beginning of the end for DRM. Hopefully we’ve finally reached a point where the content providers realize that it pays (quite literally) to trust the consumer and treat them with respect. Let’s just hope Steve’s RDF is working overtime.

Finally, before I go, an example to show this DRM debacle doesn’t just concern Joe Consumer; it also impacts every user at your local library. Take a look at the audio book download section of the Chicago Public Library.

HOT - as someone we know might say. Or perhaps not. No iPod compatibility. Blame DRM. If the most widely used portable music player in the world can’t interoperate at the local library I think we definitively have a usability issue. But be warned, should you try to find a way around this problem on your own you might end up just like me - a fair use fugitive.

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I guess a bit of background is in order. My name is Eric Whitfield and I was a student of Michael's at Dominican this past year. I am currently working full-time as a software developer while I continue work on my LIS degree. It was an honor to guest post at TTW and I’m looking forward to joining the conversation with my own blog in the near future. Oh, and of course, I didn’t really do anything mentioned in this post. That would be wrong.

Comments

Eric, very good essay that manages to cover multiple layers of this issue with humor and clarity. Allow me to go on record encouraging you in blogging! You have a voice, share it! :)

Oh, and maybe we can be "friends" on iLike? While it has its problems (they need more server space, need to figure out how to keep going without too invasive of a marketing campaign...) it sure is a LOT of fun.

It's a bit dated, but ALA has a PDF on their DRM Resources page called "Digital Rights Management: A Guide for Librarians." (http://www.ala.org/ala/washoff/woissues/copyrightb/digitalrights/drmresources.cfm)

Even if Steve Jobs has initiated the end of DRM, libraries will still need to deal with it for quite some time. Make sure that someone in your library has been tasked with keeping up with DRM trends.

Excellent post, do you have your own blog? If so, please share the link.

Have you heard anything about Apple doing a retroactive DRM stripping for those of us with existing DRM protected media? It seems an iTunes upgrade could include an easy fix for this.

A side note of how DRM has darkened my doorstep: I burn a lot of CDs from iTunes, CDs are extremely cheap and I'm not a big fan of the FM transmitters for iPod...without a direct connection to the audio system it just isn't the same...anyway. I often lose or horribly scratch up my CDs, so then end up burning a new copy when the old one wears out. I've come to the point where I've met the 5 maximum burnings of an album for some of my music. There are ways around this, but it's a hassle and possibly not legal? :-)

No blog yet, although it has been on my ToDo list for far too long. It will be up soon and hopefully Michael might toss a link my way after I get things rolling.

To answer your other question, Apple appears prepared to roll out the technology to retroactively strip DRM from previously purchased songs. From an Apple press release dated April 2, 2007:

"In addition, iTunes customers will be able to easily upgrade their entire library of all previously purchased EMI content to the higher quality DRM-free versions for just 30 cents a song."

So, it looks like the technology will be there, but we'll have to pay the price difference between the new DRM-free tracks and our old purchases. Small steps. Sigh.

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