The DRM debate picks up steam

Well, it looks like I got my wish granted, although I’m not going to attempt to claim that my own post had anything to do with it. But people are starting to talk about DRM, digital media and the future of the genre.

The latest Doctorow essay has had a good slew of replies, from both sides of the fence. Of course, science fiction is a small part of a huge pond of content, and this debate is indicative of far wider trends.

Before the Sony debacle last year, hardly anyone outside the content industries (and probably not many within them) knew what DRM stood for. Now it’s another one of those buzzcronyms that fly around cyberspace on a daily basis. I think we can all agree that this is a good thing – people who understand a situation are better placed to examine it, and then make decisions and judgements on it.

And they are doing so. Of course, right and wrong are always subjective things, and hence impossible to define for everyone. But facts are easier to work with, and we have a few irrefutable ones:

  • consumers find DRM frustrating;
  • certain people will always work to circumvent it, if perhaps only for the sake of the challenge and a sense of Robin-Hoodesque righteousness dressed up as principles; and, most importantly,
  • people are like electricity – they take the path of least resistance to the place they want to be.

Most people are surely united in a sincere wish not to return to the ancient ‘patronage sysytem’, where a rare few artists were funded by rich notables, and the rest starved in their garretts with little chance of breaking out. Granted, a lot of artists are indeed stuck in a garrett (and may never escape it) but the odds of succeeding are far better these days. Personally, I’d like to see the playing field levelled a bit, with the ‘real superstars’ brought down a financial peg or two and the folk at the bottom of the ladder given a better break, but I feel sure that digital distribution and the Long Tail will make that inevitable after a while.

A reasoned middle ground is emerging on the issue – people who can see DRM stinks for the consumer, but who recognise the need to protect the rights of the artist to own their work tangibly. This is where I stand, pretty much. I’m more than happy to pay for my content (as I have done for years), but it is only recently that portability and interoperability have become relevent issues, thanks to the ubiquity of digital distibution. If I pay for a book or a CD, I can read or listen to it anywhere I like. The same should apply to digital content – with allowances made to, as far as is practically possible, prevent unlicensed redistribution and copying. Even the British Library has spoken out over this issue.

That’s the killer – as far as is practically possible – and it ties into my statement that people are like electricity. There will always be a few people who steal or share digital media, just as there will always be benefit cheats, shoplifters, bent politicians and so on – it’s a corollary of capitalism, end of story. The focus should be on minimising the number of people who take this approach, and it is.

But the methodology is all wrong – it’s similar in some ways to the wiretapping issue in the States at the moment (though obviously not as important), in that the majority are being told to surrender their rights to make it easier to catch the minority of rule-breakers. This system is giving filesharing and DRM cracking a Sherwood Forest allure of romance, the scent of an idealistic crusade on behalf of the little guys. Bringing down popular heroes merely makes them martyrs. That’s a dangerous route to travel.

Until DRM treats the consumer fairly, allowing them the fair use rights that already exist in law, then people will move to circumvent it. While the content industry continues to persecute the average consumer and treat them as guilty until proven otherwise, they will only create an undertow of resentment that is already leading to an attitude whereby people are breaking copyright as a gesture of defiance (as recognised by Andy at SFBC). What is needed is an implementation of DRM that doesn’t screw the paying customer over. Then there would be no need for them to circumvent it. Why go the effort of cracking DRM if it’s not interfering with your enjoyment in any way?

I’ve said it before – I don’t have the answers to this problem. I’m not a coder, a marketer, a publisher, or even an artist in danger of having my work stolen. But I can see both sides of the argument, as well as the inevitable changes to come that make its solution imperative. Let’s hope a compromise can be reached, before everyone gets too entrenched to remember what the battle was originally about.

3 thoughts on “The DRM debate picks up steam”

  1. “who recognise the need to protect the rights of the artist to own their work tangibly.”

    I recognize a need to protect the rights of artists in general. When I call out the protections of tangibility, I’m really pointing to a disconnect between people like Doctorow and the music industry. He and the print industry can currently count on the “inherent rights management” that comes with an inability to physically and practically reproduce their content to ensure they get paid for their efforts. The music industry doesn’t have that buffer. So while I can call out the heavy-handed/underhanded activities of the music industry, I can also call out my personal experiences watching well-paid white collar workers eating up company bandwidth to download literally hundreds of songs and burn them to disk in place of buying the work (they didn’t even pay for the blank CD’s).

    It’s not the technology; it the behavior. And it’s not one side imo, it’s both sides. Let’s not forget what happened when Stephen King trusted the masses – they turned on him. Let’s not forget small independent game studios who find more people playing their game online than they’ve actually sold. There is very much an atmosphere of an armored car crash – everyone wants a piece. And that’s a shame.

    I’ve never supported the corporations in this. And I’ve never really worried about the artists for their sake (I agree that we have a few who could stand to come down a peg – along with athletes, actors, aso). My position is selfish: I want a functional market that rewards creativity so that I can enjoy an abundance of future creations. I’m worried that future may be threatened by both sides in this war.

    On my site I once said I expect a short creative burst; and I believe we’ll see that. We’ll also see a market that which includes relatively new access to a back catalog of work, so it’ll seem as if everything is going just fine. But longer term I’m afraid that the current behavior of the massives – together with the entitlement attitude I see in the world – will take its toll and we may look back on these as the Golden Years. That would be a shame, considering that these should be just the beginning of a 21st Century Renaissance.

  2. Thanks for popping in and clarifying – I didn’t mean to misquote you or put you out of context! I think we’re in pretty similar camps on this issue…

    …however, you state your position much more fluently than I do! Thanks for the input. Enjoying reBang, BTW.

  3. I’ll tell you what I can state fluently. My utter disgust at downloading a track with iTunes and not being able to DJ with it in Traktor. Then waltzing over to an equivalent electronic download site and getting a version I can use in Traktor.

    OK then, maybe not that fluently but I tried!

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