Is there an acceptable level of DRM?

by davidnielsen

I have been giving DRM some consideration lately, specifically with deals such as the Zune Marketplace free pass to millions of songs at 14.95$ a month with 10 free keepers a month would there exist and implementation of DRM I would accept as a requirement for access. While I generally hate DRM and think it punishes paying customers, could one envision an implementation that would be fair?

E.g could one envision a business build on free streaming of DRMed files and DRM free files for purchase so that they allow reasonable access to listen and learn new music but if you want to access the files and do with them what you wish – say use them offline, use excerpts of for a review or a composite video (adding a touch of music to a video project, like a review YouTube show or as a music interlude in a podcast). Would it work and what problems would there be with such a model?

Well first up the technological problems inherent to DRM won’t go away, if the DRM server is down or is removed as has been the case with a number of services already. Then your content stops working, however this would only affect the streaming service as songs you bought and own would be DRM free. Free services disappear all the time for many reasons so I don’t see this as specifically a DRM problem but a consumer support problem, if we don’t back the model then the service will go away. Magnatune runs a streaming service for all their music and the only price you pay for this wonderful access is listening to a little blurb at the end of each song, this works well for independent artists. However I don’t see e.g. Parlophone being ready as a corporation to grant the same level of access to their catalog with the only protection from being ripped off being “trust the customers not to abuse the service and save streams, remove ads and building a full copy without giving us a dime”. That is just not the way they have grown use to doing working and expecting them to attain enlightenment overnight is more than dangerously naive.

I think Magnatune deserves a lot of credit for taking that risk and I am hopefully that it is paying off for them. I think a lot of such a success can be traced back to their stated mission of not being evil, I think customers respect that and having it be highly visible and transparent, such as can be seen in their simple profit sharing that your money actually goes to the artists. As such Magnatune’s “pay what you want” system often is above the minimum of 5$, in other words people aren’t cheap when they feel they are being treated fairly. I have to admit that while there are no limits on the files and I get them in the format I desire even lossless I am still amazed when they encourage me to share my new music with 3 friends. They could have politely asked me not to do that to protect their business as well as their artists and I would respect it because of the beyond fair treatment they give me otherwise and instead send friends to their streaming service to sample my amazing new finds.

Another problem with any technology designed to limit your use of content is that what you will accept now isn’t always what you will accept in the future. E.g. a user might go an buy an iPhone today and not think twice about the limits Apple ensure using lawyers and technology to lock out 3rd parties, if that user some time later elects to move to Linux or just move away from iTunes the consequences of that acceptance hits. Nor did I when the DVD player came out give much thought to the protection schemes built in and how they affected me and I started building what has now become a huge collection of movies and TV shows on DVDs. Not for a second did I consider that the region coding meant that taking my DVDs with me out of Europe would render them unplayable. After all I thought I would live in Denmark all my life and it didn’t limit me then outside of buying DVDs from the US that weren’t available in Denmark and here all players are basically region code free so it was a non-problem. As my situation now might call for a move to Brazil or where ever my fiancée finds the perfect Ph.D. project this might come back to bite me in the nether regions.

Another problem relating to the DVDs is that the CSS protection, is being heavily protected by lawyers, limits my OS of choice from shipping support, I can’t view the content I paid for on my desktop out of the box. While the laws in Denmark would seemingly allow me to break the protection, making such code available could land one in serious trouble of the lose your house flavor. This also means that while he rest of the software stack in Linux is very advanced, DVD support is lacking since no company will risk helping out as it would make them a target, no distro can ship the code leading to the feature being under maintained and under tested. I might legally be able to install such support but frankly it’s in a poor state and close to uselessly broken in some cases for no good technical reason, all of which makes me a sad panda.

Why is this a problem? Well I would like to do to my DVDs what I did to my CDs. Keep the originals safe in a box and access my content the way I please on the devices I please. I would love a way to easily and quickly put my movies on a NAS and let them be transcoded for use on my portable devices, viewable on the TV and other such things. I might even want to use little snippets easily in other projects, like this blog. When I started building my collection a DVD was probably so large that the idea of fitting hundreds of movies onto a harddrive seemed a bit far fetched, not today though. The hardware is cheap and available anywhere, now it’s a good time to do something like this and I can’t easily.

The point is you will agree to some limitation now that might come back to haunt you years from now, if it is enforced by DRM then your only choice is to violate the law to access and enjoy the content you bought the way you want. There are risks involved with this and you cannot be sure that software to do such alternation will be available as companies like to sue those who enable you to do these things.

I honestly though don’t think I can find a single major thing to object about with a scheme which sole purpose is to prevent saving a stream, there will always be people for whom this isn’t enough or people who will be break the protection to keep the content they get free access to. I have no problem going after these people, I really don’t, they have the option of using the entirely free access (perhaps with ads, lower resolution than would be available to buy DRM free), I see no moral argument one could present for doing such a thing. Well there is one, provided the access isn’t equal, then they would deprive users of say Linux from using the free option thus forcing them to buy without trying.

Even an truly dogmatic FSF supporter wouldn’t really be able to argue this is directly evil, while the specific component that unlocks the DRM is very likely to be proprietary (giving you the content, the means to unlock it and the key – that is free access which is unlikely to happen) you would still have the option of playing the content using nothing by ideologically blessed software, provided you buy the content.

Assuming the blob is well written as well as supported on any platfrom and some entity such as the Linux Foundation has access to the code under NDA so we can get an opinion as whether or not unlocking the DRM is all it does. I wouldn’t feel bad about installing such a thing by default on users desktops (again, if you don’t like it, remove it and live with buying your content). We could even restrict the binary with things such as AppArmor or SELinux to ensure it’s not given all out access to reduce the security concerns.

Lots of maybes and assumptions but I think such a scheme would work and hopefully as time progresses, with the support of customers it could be shown that customers can be trusted to not abuse such restriction-less privileges. As for the realism inherent to such an idea, I doubt you’ll get record companies and movie studios to agree to this but on the other hand what Spotify is doing today if I understand it correctly (sadly there is no Spotify in Denmark yet) in the countries where they have gotten the licenses isn’t that dissimilar to the streaming part of the idea, adding a DRM free store wouldn’t be a far stretch.

I think when it comes to DRM free content customers also need to realize that they are asking companies to run a risk of losing revenue, something that is very scary to them, it’s a big shift in the way they have grown used to working and they need to be convinced by the bottom line. They give you an awful lot of power which can be abused and we need to show that the limits they put on content is harmful to paying customers, it holds back creativity and new business models but in return we have to reward them for trusting us by not abusing that trust once they put it in us. Even if we are justifiably angry over past transgressions, the way to settle that anger is not to rip them off when they change for the better.

DRM Free, to paraphrase that cliché from Spider-Man, comes with great responsibility.