Defeating DRM and the Digital Rights Mentality

Imagine buying a DVD and being able to play it in your living room, but not in your bedroom.   Or, not being able to pop the disc into your computer and watch it there; or not be able to bring it to your friend’s house and watch it without some sort of “Access denied” message displaying on the screen?  How far is digital rights management going to go?  How much of our fundamental rights and freedoms is it going to take away?  I suspect that one day in the not so distant future, this type of scenario will become an everyday occurrence: you buy a “book” and pop it into your “book reader.”  It doesn’t work and then you remember, “Oh jeez, I forgot to register my retina’s with the reader.”  You want to show a passage in the “book” to your friend sitting beside you, but all he sees is a blank “page.”  Then you realize and mutter to your friend, “Oh crap, you have to buy a license.”  Don’t laugh.  Mark my words, this type of thing will happen.  Greedy companies and people will want to squeeze every last penny out of every piece of content recorded on every piece of media in the guise of “protecting the consumer.”  “You will want, no need this to protect the world and your self from those evil pirates,” they will say.  “Go buy your <fill in the blank> technology gadget thingy”.  I am one of the few that think that it’s not too late — we, the consumer, still have time to steer this in the direction that is best for us.  We still have time to prevent the digital rights toilet.

Have you noticed that many of your friends are actually buying music online these days, going to legitimate download sites?  Five years ago, these same friends might have been using Napster, or Morpheous or Kazza or one of its variants.  The reason, I believe, that people have made this “switch” is that it is so easy and cheap to download music legitimately.  Using what might be considered an “illegitimate” method (according to the music and movie industry) takes too much time and work — it simply isn’t worth it.  Well, that is about to change…

With the introduction all the various form of digital rights management, dynamic cryptography, content and playback restrictions, “trusted computing initiatives,” etc.  and the need to purchase new “improved” hardware and gadgets to support such technology — it suddenly won’t be so easy to purchase or download media, much less, play it back.  All these nuisances add up.  The consumer and user experience for this “legitimate” market becomes unappealing.  And guess what, rising from the ashes will be that other market.  Sleeping developers will be awaken and more motivated than ever to resurrect the “illegitimate” software to support and propagate “piracy.”  Many of the consumers faced with the choice will opt for the “illegitimate” option simply because of the lack of restrictions placed on the media and on the experience.  Your license won’t expire. You won’t need to be “connected” to be able to play the media.  You’ll be able to play the media where you want, and when you want, as many times as you want.  Oh, and you won’t have to buy some “trusted” gadget that spies on you and reports back to Big Brother.  Notice that none of these consumer wants are illegal.  Actually, they all seem pretty reasonable.  And with the return of the “illegitimate” market, the industry will have even greater excuse to introduce even more technology and restrictions to the medium, to provide even more barriers to the consumer and user experience.

It goes like this:  the industry (music, movie and computing) today, wanting to make even more money than they already do, are creating a culture of fear, filling our heads with the notion that we, the  collective economy are losing millions to these “thieves”, and that they must be stopped.  So they create these technological barriers at the expense of user and consumer experience, knowing very well that these barriers will stir up and kindle the “pirate” market, thereby justifying their restriction of rights in the first place, and giving them just cause to purge our rights even more.  It’s not management, but Digital Rights Fascism, and if they have their way, we will all be raising our rights hands to hail  them, as we dip into our wallets with our left hands to pay their ransom.

So what can we do about it?  I see two options.  The first, is to join the “pirate” community as a developer and/or user.  Participate in peer-to-peer file sharing networks, and write code to support these networks or whatever the current technology might be.  Grow this “illegitimate” market back to the same levels of its heyday.  Of course, I cannot recommend this option because it would most likely get people into legal and financial trouble, especially the way the industry is suing yours and everyone’s grandma for even thinking about sharing a file.  The second option, I believe, is more powerful and more likely to get results: exercise your right as a consumer to make an educated choice.

Luckily, we still live in a free, democratic, market based economy, where the market is still generally determined by the consumer, and not dictated by the supplier.  We can choose not buy something, or into something.  We can choose not to buy DRM supporting products or content.  Conversely, we can choose to support suppliers, content providers and artists who sell products and content that do not restrict our digital rights.  Money talks, and if no one buys these protected gadgets, computers, DVDs, audio and video files, etc., then the industry will have to rethink its product.  Even if the hardware suppliers and content/media providers take away all other options and only offer DRM enabled products, we can still choose not to buy any of their products at all, and choose instead to do something else with our lives.  Moreover, we could also make our displeasure heard loudly in the media.  We could stir up such negative press to sway both the uneducated consumer and the stake-holding shareholder to examine their fundamental stances on digital rights.  Take for example, Coke’s attempt to switch formula’s in the 80’s.  People refused to buy it and created such an uproar that Coke was forced to change back to their “classic” formula.  We could do the same with digital rights.  I do not believe that it’s too late.

The President of Sony’s Global Digital Business, Thomas Hesse, was quoted as saying about the whole Sony rootkit incident : “Most people, I think, don’t even know what a rootkit is, so why should they care about it?”  It is true, the general public does not know what a rootkit is, or what the implications of a rootkit are.  This is what they are counting on.  Sony and the like are counting on people’s general ignorance and laziness to slip their rights restricting policies and technologies into their products.  They know that ignorance breeds acceptance.  Our duty, then, is to educate.