Friday, March 18, 2005

Digital Rights Management

From Slashdot, I saw an article today that hacker/consumer rights warrior DVDJon has created a way to purchase music from Apple's iTunes Music Store without the DRM encoding. The way iTunes works is that it sends the MP3 file from its servers to your computer without the DRM encoding. The iTunes application then adds the encoding. For those not familiar with DRM, once this encoding has been done, you can only do things with the song specified by the terms of the download. The terms vary depending on the song, but this typically means you can burn it onto a normal music CD, or you can transfer it to your iPod, or you can copy it into you Winamp MP3 playlist. But you can't do all 3. To do all 3, you must purchase the song 3 times. DVDJon created a program that takes advantage of this loophole.

DVDJon's program, PyMusique, interacts with Apple's servers, bypassing the iTunes program on your computer. This is a definite violation of Apple's Terms of Service, since they state that all interaction must be done through the iTunes client. It is also of dubious legality according to the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA...which can also stand for Damn Music Corporation Act since their lobbying was a driving force behind it). The DMCA declares software intended to bypass DRM restrictions to be illegal. The loophole and legal breathing room that DVDJon has here is that PyMusique is not bypassing DRM restrictions. It simply prevents the DRM restrictions from being applied. A very thin distinction, but it is there nonetheless.

As a side note, it is interesting to point out that the DMCA applies to newer technologies, such as DVDs and iTunes, but not to CDs. Because CDs were around before DRM, the DMCA does not apply. The music industry is kind of stuck there. If they start putting out CDs in a different format that contain DRM protections, they run the risk of these CDs not being compatible with existing players. Imagine buying the new Dave Matthews CD, popping it in your car's CD player and no music comes out. The backlash would be fierce. The new format would not be adopted. That's why they've focused their efforts on just suing the P2P network (Kazaa, Napster, etc.) users. The profit margin is higher and less risky there. DVDs and iTunes, however, have DRM built into them, so they are protected. That's why it's legal to rip a CD onto your computer, but illegal to do the same with a DVD.

Whenever I read articles like the one above, I think about the evil that is DRM and the DMCA and the effects they have on individual choice and consumer rights. I understand the intent is to protect artists' livelihoods and musical innovation, and I respect that. If an artist spends a year working in a studio (which gets pretty expensive), they need a way to make that money back. Not all musical artists can make their living by live performances. Your typical rock band, yes. But not all, and we consumers must respect that. However, the DMCA as it currently exists needs to be repealed and replaced with legislation that balances the rights involved. To get such legislation, technology innovators must also be involved, not just corporate lobbyists. To show what I mean, let me provide a real example of an innovation the DMCA killed.

Here's an old article about a Hollywood organization suing a company called Kaleidoscope. Last I heard, Kaleidoscope lost and no longer exists. Kaleidoscope created a DVD jukebox that lets you copy up to 500 DVDs and play them back later without physically having the disc. Furthermore, you can hook every TV in your house up to this device and not have to buy separate DVD players for them. It is important to note that Kaleidoscope was trying to play by the rules. You could copy the DVD into the player, but you couldn't copy things back out. In other words, this jukebox gave you no way to get the software copy of the movie to transfer to anyone else. Theoretically, you and 499 friends could all go out and by one of these, then each by 1 DVD and share them amongst yourselves, thus cheating the movie industry out of all those sales. This seems a bit unlikely, though, if you crunch the numbers. Let's assume a typically price tag of $20 (that's actually a bit high) for a DVD. Multiply that by the 500 you would normally have to buy and you get $10,000. Had each and every one of you all bought the DVDs, that number should be $5,000,000. That's a big loss for the industry. But keep in mind, each of you could have bought all of these for $10,000. The cost of the DVD jukebox was $27,000. Obviously, the people buying the jukebox are not doing so to rip off the movie industry. If they're spending $27,000 on a piece of electronic equipment, they're not going to have a problem spending another $10,000 on the DVDs individually. Furthermore, this leads me to a simple rhetorical question: How is this so different than borrowing the individual, physical DVD? How many times do you watch a movie? Once, twice? If it's one you really love, let's say, 10 times. If a friend of mine and I both have 500 movies in our collection, the odds of him watching one at the exact same time I want to watch it are pretty slim. If he is, I could just go and join him. If he's not, I could borrow it. I.e., I am not purchasing it and am costing the industry money. If I want to watch it again later, I could simply borrow it again.

The point of the previous paragraph is that you have an area of innovation (creating different methods of storage and playback in the home) that is being stifled by the overly-broad DMCA. The jukebox, because it got around the copy-protection scheme of the DVDs, was ruled to violated the DMCA because it intentionally bypassed DRM protections. This is a bad precedent. Companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Sony are looking at taking the computer outside the box. I.e., making computer chips pervasive throughout the home. Imagine listening to music in the dining room. Then, when dinner is done, you go into the kitchen to do the dishes and have the music continue playing in there. You have one source for the music in both places and the sound continues uninterrupted in both places. This idea of pervasive computing is threatened by knee-jerk legislation sponsored by companies that want to cling to outdated means of product distribution. The movie companies don't care if the jukebox makes it easy for you to enjoy their product. They would rather have you buy a $20 DVD for the living room, and another $20 DVD for the player in your bedroom, and another $20 DVD to play on your laptop on a business trip. The cost of manufacturing another DVD is extremely small. The more of these physical media you buy, the more their profit. If you could buy a copy of a movie for $30 and do whatever you like with it (copy it into the jukebox, copy it onto your laptop, etc.), it is a simple business analysis that this is bad for the movie industry. That's only $30 of profit versus the $60 they made using the old DVD media version.

All this may seem like random rambling (in a way, it is), but the point is that the DMCA is an overly broad piece of legislation that needs to be repealed. Innovation should be rewarded. Not stagnation.


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