The Fallacy of Digital Rights Management
Wednesday, Apr 23, 2003
Digital rights management (DRM), when applied to music, makes no logical sense for at least the next decade.

When dealing with the medium of audio (music), where it is assured that new releases will continue to be made available on compact discs for at least the next decade due to the embedded market of CD players, embedding DRM protections into digitally downloaded songs will do absolutely nothing to decrease unauthorized copying and playing of those songs.

The reasoning goes like this: A new song or album is released both online in DRM form, and on compact disc. Even if 80% of the purchases are of the online DRM file (thinking to how the world might be in 15 years, but not as it is today, where online downloads reflect about 0.05% of an album's sales), even if 8 of 10 buyers have 'inert' versions of the song that can't be played anywhere but on devices they own, the other 20% can still rip an mp3 (or aac, or ogg) of the song, and inject it into the sea of P2P file sharing spheres.

To look at it another way, if there was an extremely virulent disease, (music just wants to propagate, after all) and 50,000 people were infected with it (people buying an even moderately popular album) but DRM acted as a prophylactic, preventing 40,000 of those buyers (or 25 of those buyers, using today's ratio) from spitting into the well, but the other 10,000 (49,975) buyers are still free to do so, anyone who wants to get sick can still drink from the well.

DRM's success is contingent on its universality. If a single unprotected digital source is available to the public, then getting an unprotected mp3 into the P2P world is trivial.

Look to DVDs for a more successful example of DRM. True, they can't prevent you from sharing your DVD with others (yet, though it's been tried (ahem *DivX* (I mean the other DivX))), but it's more convoluted (and less DMCA-friendly) to encode or copy an encrypted DVD.

The point here is that new digital music download services, and I'm specifically talking about Apple's new venture, have no need for DRMs, because they still represent the minority distribution channel.

DRM's useful as a tool of restriction only if its use stops someone from getting the file by other means, but DRM-ing songs sold online won't stem the flow of ripped mp3s. that won't happen until every CD player is replaced by one with DRM technology in it, or at least as many as are needed before the labels see it as more profitable to stop making 'open' CDs, forcing people to buy new players.

That transition hasn't even begun, and if the transition from LP and cassette to compact disc is any guide, it'll take at least 15 years from beginning to end.

Most importantly, until that end is reached, and the last 'open' CD is pressed, applying DRM technology to purchased digital downloads does everything to hamper fair consumer use, while providing no benefit to the music publisher.

With 5 days before Apple's unveiling of 'the next big thing' in music, let's hope they're smart enough to realize this, and even better, smart enough to have convinced the major labels as well.

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Hi, I'm Kevin Fox.
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