DRM, DMCA and OST (Other Scary Things)

It's obvious to most Linux users that Digital Rights Management (DRM) is a really bad idea. It's not just because DRM-encoded media usually won't play with our operating system, but rather because we understand the value of openness. The really sad part is that DRM, at least on some level, is attempting to do a good thing.

Take Wil Wheaton for example. You may know Wil from television or movie acting, but he's also a successful writer. Along with writing books, he often performs them and sells the audiobook version of his work. Because Wil is against DRM, his books are available as unrestricted MP3 files. That's great for those of us who like to listen to such things on Linux or a non-iPod MP3 player. Unfortunately, some users confuse DRM-free with copyright-free. When otherwise decent individuals don't think through the ramifications of redistributing someone's copyrighted work, you end up with situations like this: tinyurl.com/stealfromwil.

If you put yourself in Mr Wheaton's shoes for a second, you can see how tempting it is for authors—and, more important, publishing companies—to DRM-encode their work. Theoretically, if a piece of media is “protected” with DRM, only those people who purchase the rights to enjoy it can enjoy it. Unfortunately, as everyone but the big companies that insist on using it know, all it manages to do is punish the honest people. People who have tried to play Amazon Video on Demand videos on their Linux desktops or listen to Audible audiobooks on their no-name MP3 players know exactly what I mean.

The truth of the matter is, if people are dishonest enough to use copyrighted materials they haven't paid for, DRM does little more than give them an “excuse” for their pirating ways. Right now, users are given the choice of paying money for limited, restricted access to media, or to download illegally fully functional, cross-platform, unrestricted media for free from torrent sites. I have two messages for two different groups:

1. Media publishing companies: make it easy for users to buy access to your media, and make that media flexible, archive-able and affordable. Yes, people will pirate your stuff—just like they do now. The difference will be that your honest clients won't hate you, and you'll actually gain some clients because you will be offering what people really want.

2. Frustrated users: look, I'm with you. DRM frustrates me too. Although I'm not expecting to convert those among us who choose to pirate media, I would hope that we'd all support those companies (and individuals, in Wil Wheaton's case) that “get it”. The only way we'll be part of the solution when it comes to eliminating DRM is actually to buy non-DRM stuff. At the very least, every time you pirate something because you can't buy it legitimately, e-mail the companies and let them know. If they see lost sales, perhaps they will rethink their approach to digital media.

I could go on and on about the insanity of Blu-ray DRM and the like, but I don't have the energy. Plus, I want to go watch the hi-def movie I just ripped on my Linux laptop. I'll have to remember to e-mail the movie producer about my morally justifiable, but legally questionable ways....

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