Anti-DRM poster

Anti-DRM poster by Martin Krzywinski

A whole bunch of people have been submitting Ian Hickson’s writeup on the true purpose of DRM. Given how many people have submitted it, perhaps you’ve seen it already, but there are some really good points in there. His main thesis is that the debates over DRM tend to focus on the wrong thing. The anti-DRM crowd points out that DRM does not and cannot stop copying. Supporters of DRM say that’s not true. Hickson agrees that DRM does not stop copying, but he argues that the purpose of DRM has never really been about stopping copying, but about gaining control over software and hardware tools that play content:

The purpose of DRM is not to prevent copyright violations.

The purpose of DRM is to give content providers leverage against creators of playback devices.

Content providers have leverage against content distributors, because distributors can’t legally distribute copyrighted content without the permission of the content’s creators. But if that was the only leverage content producers had, what would happen is that users would obtain their content from those content distributors, and then use third-party content playback systems to read it, letting them do so in whatever manner they wanted.

He provides a few examples, such as how DVD players force you to watch “unskippable” ads, how services like Netflix can try to limit you from watching the same movie simultaneously on two devices, and how if you buy a movie on iTunes, and want to then watch it on a non-iPhone, you’ll have to buy it again. As he notes none of those things are really about copyright violations.

In all three cases, nobody has been stopped from violating a copyright. All three movies are probably available on file sharing sites. The only people who are stopped from doing anything are the player providers — they are forced to provide a user experience that, rather than being optimised for the users, puts potential future revenues first (forcing people to play ads, keeping the door open to charging more for more features later, building artificial obsolescence into content so that if you change ecosystem, you have to purchase the content again).

If you’re wondering why copyright holders are soooooooo desperate to have anti-circumvention provisions in copyright law, this is why. In the past, we’d pointed out that it didn’t make sense for the movie studios and record labels to be so focused on anti-circumvention/digital locks, since if people are violating copyright law (such as by reproducing or distributing copies), existing copyright law already covers that. So why add in a separate provision all about circumvention — and then be so focused on making sure the same provision exists in all laws around the globe? It seemed silly, because the only “additional” benefit it seemed to be providing was to outlaw legalforms of copying, since everything else was already covered under existing law.

However, Hickson’s argument explains much more clearly why anti-circumvention provisions are seen as an absolute necessity. It has nothing to do with copying, and everything to do with controlling the players so as to limit the kind of innovation they can provide. It’s basically a de facto veto power over new technologies. And, really, that puts a bunch of other statements in context as well. Remember how former Copyright Register Ralph Oman was saying that new player technologies should be illegal until Congress approved them? Yeah, same basic thing.

All of this shows a legacy copyright industry that is so focused on holding back innovation so that they have a veto right and control over the pace of innovation. That, of course, is bad for the economy, bad for the public and bad for society. Innovation is important in growing the economy, and due to silly laws around DRM, we are purposely holding it back.

Written by  Mike Masnick

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