DRM Hell

by David Lane

In Burning the Ships, an open letter from then-20-year-old Bill Gates, written in 1976, is cited. In that letter, Gates says To me, the most critical thing in the hobby market right now is the lack of good software.(132). He is talking about computer software in what was then a burgeoning computer industry, run mainly as a hobby. He goes on to say that the prevailing assumption that hardware must be paid for but software is something to share is not a model for the successful creation of quality hardware. As the Open Source community has proven, his statements are not quite validated, but I am not opposed to developers making money for their code.

At the beginning of this year, several people at Linux Journal and elsewhere, took a pledge to be DRM free. This pledge focuses on Digital Rights Management as applied to music, but there are a number of other areas where DRM is also applied. I used to think that it was applied for valid reasons However, after my latest episode with my laptop, I am seriously considering the headaches of DRM, especially when applied to software. Follow along for the current tale of woe.

My trusty laptop threw a rod the other day, metaphorically speaking. It stopped working. No power, no POST, no nothing. It would not even acknowledge the power brick was attached to it. This is generally a bad thing. After swapping out the brick with another machine, it became clear the problem was internal to the laptop itself. I am not a hardware guy, especially laptop hardware. I can barely solder heads on antenna cables, so I am not about to crack open a laptop and poke around in the innards. I am going to do what every other non-IT person on the planet would do in this situation – I took out the paperwork for the extended warranty and marched it back to the place of purchase and said, “Here, fix.” (In pretty much those words too). So they took it away and told me it would be ready in three weeks.

Now, for those that have not kept up, Microsoft charges for their software and not a small amount either. If you want to charge me to use your software, and I find a value in using your software, I have no problem paying you. What Microsoft and others does to control their licenses is this – they create a unique signature based on the activation key and ten or so hardware component IDs. Change a percentage of the hardware and you invalidate the key. Invalidate the key and…

My laptop came back from repair on Thursday. The problem required them to replace the motherboard. While it was away, I got thinking that I really needed to increase the size of the hard drive. You can see where this is going right? Other than the RAM and the wireless NIC, every component of the PC has been swapped out, thus invalidating the key. And this is where my problems begin.

It would seem that there are a number of programs that also use the Microsoft model, either generating their own key or tying themselves to the Microsoft key. In some cases, like Microsoft, it is a simple matter to regenerate and reverify your status with a quick trip to the web. Others do not make it so simple. I have spent two days uninstalling utilities and programs and reinstalling them and trying to get them to work correctly. I am down to two programs. One requires me to call the vendor to reset my key, a very annoying process for a very specific piece of software that cost me a very little amount of money. The other piece of software, well, I am not sure what I am going to do. It is the type that is sold through a web store, with no phone number to call to get a live body and licensing issues are not one of the six options I have to choose from when submitting a trouble report, so I am sending an email in the blind and hoping I do not get a useless response.

The key takeaway here is this. Stuff happens to hardware all the time. Stuff happens to software all the time. Good stuff and bad stuff. Hard drives fail, are upgraded, are downgraded. RAM is swapped. Motherboards fail. PCs are pretty fragile pieces of machinery. I do not mind paying for software. I do not mind that, as the developer, you feel you need to secure your code to prove I only installed it once. What I do mind is wasting several days of my life trying to make it all work again after what I consider routine repairs. And clearly, the Open Source model, without DRM, is a clear winner.

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