Breaking the DRM Stranglehold

Digital Rights Management (DRM) today doesn’t seem to be so much about protecting the integrity of creative content and other intellectually property as about enabling device and software vendors to lock customers into their products and brands.

Look no further than DRM as it applies to music and video. An article in InfoWorld today covers most of the relevant ground, noting that consumers ought to pay close attention to the topic because “nobody wants to build a library of favorite movies and songs, only to find that . . . switching to another computer or software makes it unusable.”

Indeed, that’s a fate I’d like to avoid, and one you’d doubtless like to escape, too. But how can you do it?

Unfortunately, you don’t have a lot of options today. In DRM as it applies to music, we have Apple’s Fairplay (which spans iPod and iTunes) and Microsoft’s Windows Media DRM. As these vendors would have it, their DRM systems are incompatible, meaning that consumers cannot play cannot Windows Media files on their iPods.

Video DRM, which applies to television programming and movies, is a work in progress. Perhaps something will develop to prevent Apple and Microsoft from applying their mutually exclusive DRM strangleholds on the burgeoning video realm.

One potential alternative comes from the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) — whose membership roster includes Intel Corp., Sony Corp., Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. and Lenovo Group Ltd, — which is working to define and promote an industry-standard DRM format. There also are moves afoot to produce open-source DRM mechanisms, and, of course, hackers continually seek ways to circumvent and thwart DRM technologies.

Interestingly, free-software exponents such as Richard M Stallman, who founded the Free Software movement and devised the original GNU public license, believe that open-source DRM would represent a bigger affront to freedom and liberty than proprietary DRM schemes.

In an article published earlier this year by UK-based The Register, Stallman opined:

If you think that the important thing is for the software to be powerful and reliable, you might think that applying the open-source development model to DRM software is a way to make DRM powerful and reliable. But as far as I’m concerned, that makes it worse — because it’s job is restricting you. And if it restricts you reliably, that means you’ve been thoroughly shafted.

Well, if you view the world through Stallman’s ideological prism, we’re all going to get shafted, because I don’t see the content kings retreating from their insistence on DRM. If we must have DRM — and it seems it’s an inevitability to which we must reconcile ourselves — then we need to have a DRM model that is flexible and allows for fair use and portability of content.

The existing DRM systems, whether proffered by Microsoft or by Apple, fail that test. Let’s hope, and push, for something better.


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