A Five Minute Guide to Opposing DRM

by Bruce Byfield

I've been covering the Free Software Foundation's Defective By Design campaign against Digital Rights Management (DRM) technologies since its planning stages. Starting from scratch, in less than three months, the campaign has grown to 7000 members. This number is impressive, especially since the campaign introduces a degree of activism previously unknown in the free and open source software communities. What strikes me, though, is that, for all the loathing of DRM, how rarely the reasons for opposing it are spelled out. In some cases, the reason may be that people consider them too obvious to be worth mentioning, but, too often when I've probed, people haven't even heard of the possible objections. These objections begin with the fact that the case for DRM has yet to be made, and continues with arguments about consumer rights, privacy, competitiveness, and industry standards.

Not that the explanations can't be quickly found online. Cory Doctrow's "Microsoft Research DRM Talk" and Lawrence Lessig's "The People Own Ideas!" are especially useful explanations, none the less for being a year or two old -- some particulars may have changed, but the general objections remain the same. Still, neither is especially short, and I thought it might be worthwhile to summarize anti-DRM arguments in an article that can be read in less than five minutes to help people explain the issues to others.

The unproven need

As you probably know, DRM refers to a group of technologies designed to restrict access to digital information, typically software, music, or movies. Supporters of DRM claim that it is needed to prevent copyright violations and loss of income. Undoubtedly, computer technologies make violating copyright easier than every before, but, the frequent claims that the music and record industries are losing money because of these violations lack credibility because they are based on projected sales, and no pre-computer baseline exists for comparisons. So far as I know, no neutral study supports them. In fact, as Eric Flint of the Baen Free Library is fond of pointing out, because online availability makes keeping a backlist of earlier works available, it may tend to increase sales in the long run, especially for older works and less well-established artists.

Moreover, even if digital technologies were proved to be harmful to sales, alternatives to DRM exist. For instance, in Canada and many other countries, copyright law includes provisions for a levy to compensate artists and their publishers for lost income. A surcharge is placed on such things as library copies of books or the sale of recordable CDs, and regularly divided up among registered stakeholders. These provisions, which are several decades old in some parts of the world, could be at least considered before DRM. New levies or an increase in existing ones would do less to upset existing laws than implementing DRM.

But, despite the unproven need, DRM is slowly gaining legal status. Both the American Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and the European Union's European Copyright Directive legalize DRM, and other countries are looking at similar legalizations, largely because they are signatories to the 1996 World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Copyright Treaty.

Whether DRM can reduce copyright violations is uncertain. Considering the inability to control similar technologies in the past, such as the tape recorder and the photocopier, probably it cannot. Rather than attempting to enforce the unenforceable, artists and manufacturers could probably make better use of their time by considering alternative business models. However, this inability to achieve its basic goal does not mean that DRM will not be implemented with dangerous consequences.

The basic arguments against

Basically, arguments against DRM fall into four major categories:

  • Consumer Rights: The most basic argument against DRM is highlighted in the name of the Defective by Design campaign -- namely that DRM technologies result in inferior products with deliberately disabled features. Just as importantly, even if DRM were effective in protecting manufacturers against illegal copying -- which seems questionable, considering how quickly DeCSS appeared once the demand for it existed -- it does so at the cost of existing consumer rights. Users can borrow books from each other, but may not be able to borrow ebooks or mp3 files where DRM is implemented. Similarly, they may not be able to play DVDs from some distributors or install free software, because their hardware only allows registered products from a particular manufacturer to be used or installed. They may not be able to make a backup copy, even in jurisdictions where doing so is legal. From this perspective, DRM continues the trend begun by software end-user license agreements and subscription services, both of which promote the idea that users buy only the right to use the software they buy and do not own it outright. In all these cases, the general tendency is to reduce consumers' rights while reducing the obligations of manufacturers.

  • Violation of Privacy: In the fall of 2005, publicity over Extended Copyright Protection, better known as the Sony root kit, alerted consumers to the possibility that DRM-enabled hardware can be controlled by the manufacturer, and report regularly on its users' activities. This scenario is any system administrators' nightmare; basically, it makes a secure system impossible. Moreover, it violates the privacy provisions in many jurisdictions (but not in much of the United States), most of which gives users the right to know that data is being gathered. Typically, privacy laws also give users the right to know that the data is gathered for a reasonable purpose and used only for the reasons stated and that the data is stored securely. Privacy concerns are the largest non-technical argument against DRM, although conceivably DRM could simply be recognized as an exception to existing laws.

  • Anti-competitiveness: Depending on the implementation, DRM may allow only compatible digital material to play on a given piece of a technology. In other words, to play a Sony CD, you would need to have a Sony player, and non-Sony CDs would require their own separate players. In this scenario, DRM becomes a back door entrance to monopoly. It would prove a detriment to second tier hardware manufacturers unless they could license a major manufacturer's DRM technologies. Even more importantly, it would literally mean the end of free software.

  • Industry Standards: So far, no universally agreed-upon standard for DRM exists. Instead, each manufacturer sets its own standards. To see why this situation is undesirable, you only need to imagine the chaos if car manufacturers could set their own crash safety standards. Not only would people waste endless time shopping around for compatibility, but consumer protection would be impossible. There's a reason why, in other industries, standards are set by consultation and overseen by government agencies -- it's the only way to ensure that the standards are not based entirely on self-interest. If DRM standards were regulated, we might hope that, if DRM were not banned, it would at least be restricted to mild forms that did not violate existing copyright and privacy legislation. The way things are, DRM sets an alarming precedence for other industries by placing the interests of a few manufacturers above the public good.

Looking for other arguments

Generalizing about DRM is hard because no single form of it exists, and we can't know exactly what forms will be implemented in the future. Still, these arguments cover most of the objections, although at a very high level. If there are objections that I've missed (and I'm sure that there are) then please free to mention them in a comment, so others can learn from them.

Meanwhile, the ones I've given are enough for a start. As you can tell from the Orwellian name, DRM technologies are not the benign effort to protect copyright law that their supporters claim. They are based on an unproven need, and would benefit only a handful of large companies while undermining existing laws and business practices and making free software an impossibility. Yet they are being introduced with a minimum of public discussion. By marshalling the arguments, we can encourage others to support groups like Defective Design and the Electrohic Frontier Foundation and help to counter the drive towards DRM.

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for Newsforge and Linux Journal.