Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Cory Doctorow on DRM.

I'm at ApacheCon in San Diego, where about 450 ASF hackers are locked in a hotel while the weather outside is spectacular.

Cory Doctorow delivered an excellent keynote yesterday on digital rights management. His views are clear from his writings elsewhere. I agree with him emphatically: Studios and record companies grew up during a time when the way that content got distributed was very different. Ubiquitous digital networking changes the game fundamentally. DRM is an attempt by the distribution companies -- last millenium's winners -- to prohibit new business models around content distribution, so there can be no new winners for the new millenium. DRM isn't good for artists and it isn't good for consumers. It's only good for the middlemen.

During his talk, and in a follow-up discussion we had later in the day, he made a few points that I think are worth repeating here.

First, Cory works with an organization called the Electronic Frontier Foundation to oppose DRM where it crops up. That group has been very active in monitoring and reporting on meetings of the World Intellectual Property Organization, or WIPO. WIPO considers, with some regularity, imposing legislation in different parts of the world so that DRM is required for use of media. The EFF attends WIPO meetings and reports on deliberations (blogging is a tremendous tool for this). Simply by showing up, the EFF has engaged WIPO delegates in a productive conversation, made deliberations more transparent and changed the way that decisions are made. DRM remains a threat and WIPO still considers it, but this is a great example of why you want to work with those whose views you oppose.

In a surprising (to me) contrast, the EFF has had little or no success in engaging Apple on its use of DRM. Apple is a huge distributor of digital media -- everyone's heard of iTunes, and my informal survey says that the iPod Nano is the only thing you need to buy your teenager this Christmas to win his love forever. Apple uses very aggressive DRM technology in iTunes and the iPod. It's impossible, using Apple-supplied tools, to move iTunes songs to competing music players. It's very hard to share content among devices, even if you own all of them. Apple regularly updates the DRM system in its products to eliminate ways that people find to share files.

Let me be clear, here, that I'm not advocating piracy. I'm talking about moving my legally-purchased iTunes recording of Royal Oil by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones from my Powerbook to my Rio MP3 player. I like it, I bought it, and I want to listen to it in the gym, but Apple says no. The EFF has tried to work with Apple to reduce the burden that DRM puts on Apple customers, but to no avail.

Now, Apple builds wonderful technology. I love their computers. An iPod is not merely a nice player, it's a beautiful object. Apple's engineers are outstanding. Many are active in open source projects (in fact, Apple ingested the open source FreeBSD operating system as the basis for its MacOS X platform). I bet that many Apple employees are FSF members.

So how is it that the EFF can engage with WIPO, and can do productive work, but not with Apple? It's really a shock to me. Apple's customers and the people who make the music would be much better off without DRM. Apple's defending last millenium's distributors, but Apple is a this-millenium kind of company. People don't buy iTunes music because it has DRM. They buy it despite the fact that it has DRM, and they hate the way that DRM interferes with their enjoyment of it.

Hey, Steve: Talk to Cory.

The second interesting point from our conversation was about ways to make DRM irrelevant. I believe that the EFF's lobbying work is important, and I'm glad they're doing it, but I don't believe it will succeed in the long term. The only real way to kill DRM is to create viable businesses that don't use it. Build content repositories that contain great music, literature and video, make them available without DRM restrictions, and then find ways to generate revenue for the creators. Steal the audience away from the existing studios and music distributors; show them that they need to abandon DRM or else lose.

I asked about that strategy explicitly. Cory points out that his own books are distributed under Creative Commons licenses, which effectively prohibit the addition of DRM technology. Other artists -- he named several, but the number is large -- are doing the same.

That's great. I'm glad to hear it. I really hope that someone with vision and enough money to do it will create the repository and distribution strategy that draws the audience. Let's get people excited about easily-shared content. Let's make certain that the sharing is legal. Let's find ways to pay the creators of the works. Where we can, let's eliminate the overhead that middlemen impose, driving costs down for consumers and making more great content more easily available.


Blogger christopher baus said...

The EFF defends clients against legal action which involves Digital Rights. They did go against Apple on censorship issues.

What Apple is doing isn't illegal and they haven't sued their customers, so there isn't much the EFF can do other than talk.

Without DRM there wouldn't be iTunes Music store, because the music labels wouldn't allow Apple to distribute their content otherwise. Plus Apple can earn reoccuring revenue by selling the content to multiple users.

Doctorow says DRM is bad for content producers, but I say let the content producers decide for themselves. Many choose DRM, including Ani DiFranco who owns the label.

I don't think Doctorow should worry. I have faith that the market will choose wisely. If the market doesn't like DRM, it won't buy DRM enabled devices. Its that simple.

Personally I'm grateful for DRM which has resulted in great products and services like iTunes, Rhapsody, and Y!Music Unlimited.


3:03 PM  
Blogger Mike Olson said...


Thanks for your comments.

I'm not arguing that Apple's breaking the law. I'm arguing that it's behaving badly.

Sure, the studios are happier with iTunes because it offers DRM. But Apple's refusal to license codecs to manufacturers of competing players, and Apple's increasingly restrictive policies on what constitutes use by a single individual in its DRM updates, goes past that. Apple's behaving like an old-style music distributor itself, restricting use to its own devices and systems.

And, to be honest, I shop at iTunes as well. It's a simple way to get a song quickly. It's more expensive per song, really, than buying a CD and ripping it, and it's much less flexible, but sometimes I'm willing to endure the hassle of DRM for the convenience of finding and buying.

As soon as there's a comparable DRM-free service, though, I'm gone.

9:40 PM  

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