Who needs DRM?

Digital Rights Management. Who needs it, apart from BillyG and StevieB that is?

Do the big music and film studios need it? Well, they think they do, but Steve Jobs doesn’t think so. He has posted his Thoughts on Music on the Apple website. He says he wants to remove DRM completely:

Imagine a world where every online store sells DRM-free music encoded in open licensable formats. In such a world, any player can play music purchased from any store, and any store can sell music which is playable on all players. This is clearly the best alternative for consumers, and Apple would embrace it in a heartbeat.

So who really needs it? Who has most to lose if there is no Digital Rights Management anymore?

The newly launched Microsoft Vista brings a number of raw DRM powered lockins to the table, including one lockin with the BBC who are awarding an effective monopoly for their on-demand video service to the software giant. Microsoft clearly believes they will gain from tying consumers into having to buy Microsoft’s new Vista Operating System and Zune music player, even if they want to buy something else.

The content providers have moaned for years of course, just like farmers – for whom the weather is never quite right. First it was cassette radios, then it was CDs and DAT tape, and now mp3s and other digital music formats.

Have you ever wondered how we got into this strange situation in which we are all considered to be criminals and treated as such by the people who happily take our money? When did this era of mistrust begin where the people bypassing HD-DVD protection measures aren’t hardcore video pirates but ordinary consumers who can’t even play their own legitimately-acquired content?

One of the advantages of having been born when I was, you could still go to the Saturday matinee at the cinema and watch a load of films and shorts all morning for just 6d. That’s sixpence to you youngsters, and a tanner to the oldies. [Q. Why was a tanner called a tanner?] with decimalisation it became two and a half new pence, but by then the cinema was running morning discos and the film section was getting shorter and shorter.

Every Saturday morning a few friends and I would toddle off to the ABC and spend the morning watching great old programs (from US TV I now realise) like Champion the Wonder Horse, The Lone Ranger, Flash Gordon, Batman and Robin, The Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy and so on – all the kid’s greats from the black and white era. The cinemas used to be packed with kids, but always with a few empty seats here and there.

Now, in those days there wasn’t all this electronic paraphernalia that’s causing so much fuss at the moment. We didn’t have electronically activated fire alarms on fire exits either – if you had a friend on the inside, he could open the door for you during the interval and you could get in for free.

Everybody knew how to do it, but only a few people ever did. Why? Because I think people are fundamentally honest. On the whole, most people are law abiding citizens who obey what they think to be fair. We respected others a lot more back then of course, and didn’t want to miss the first half of the show anyway. Out of a cinema of kids, I’d say no more than half a dozen would cheat their way in, and probably only half of them at most could have afforded the tickets so no real sales were lost.

A few years later, when we got to be teenagers, transistor radios were all the rage and some of them even came with casette recorders built in. Imagine! You could record music off the radio, and thereby collect loads of stuff for free. Most of it was pure rubbish of course, same as it is today, but being able to record our own stuff made us feel a little more connected with the music. As soon as we could afford to, we went and bought the real thing, to give us that sense of ownership that also gave us a “piece” of the arist who created it.

When I went to University we each had a few LPs by then and busily swapped each other’s music. I guess this was an early form of peer to peer network. Lending albums to friends was a bit of a lottery though. If you were lucky enough to get them back at all, they were usually scratched. So we’d copy them onto cassette for them, and you’re decent original would stay pristine. Or at least you’d be the only one to damage it.

Generally, cassete recordings were pretty awful quality. So if you liked the LP a friend had, you went out and bought a copy yourself, and treated the cassette as a sort of “test drive”. Cassette tapes had a habit of going missing at the next party you had anyway.

In those days we loved the record companies because they made it all possible. We felt connected to the music, and because you had this sense of “ownership” you worshipped it more, respected it more, aspired to it more. You had a sense of pride.

But the record companies saw all these tapes around the place as lost revenue: they could only see the copies, and converted each one into a lost sale. Just like today, the fact that the people with the copies spent all their spare money on legitimate music anyway wasn’t noticed. Lets face it – most people have a fixed budget: not having copies would not really increase spending much.

When CDs came out, of course we had to replace all our old scratched LPs by buying the same music again. Better quality this time we were told, but of course I now know that to make a digital sound you had to sample the analogue signal and actually cut bits out. Indestructible we were told, but of course I know now that even the best CDs may have limited life spans counted in years, perhaps a decade or a little bit more. More expensive to make we were told as the price of an artist’s album doubled in price overnight, for a technology I know now costs a lot less to manufacture than LPs.

We groaned a little, and bought less music but the record companies were happy as they raked in more money. Artists were happy as their hedonistic, millionaire lifestyles gave them all the pleasures you could cope with, and some you could not. It was a heady, exhilarating time, and technology was seen as the enabler. Everybody loved it.

With the launch of the video recorder, the same revolution hit Hollywood, and these guys are serious “rich” seekers. Now, I haven’t been to Hollywood, but I’m told that in that town everybody else really is out to make money out of you: you do have to be on your guard. But it’s a very special place Hollywood – the rest of the world really isn’t like that.

They did their SWOT analysis of the new medium and decided they needed protection. They were very conservative, and could seldom see further ahead than the next champagne bottle. For years they saw video as a threat, and then DVDs, but now make probably more money from DVD sales than they did before from cinema tickets.
So what happened?

Greed happened. Or stock market pressure. Or management school theory that said you had to take every last penny, you had to squeeze every drop out, you had to “sweat your assets” as the phrase so delightfully put it. In contradiction to the wise old Jewish saying “leave something in it for the next man” the idea was to “rip the face off” your customers as one Wall Street derivatives trader boasted to a colleague in the 90s.

Someone counted up how many kids were getting in through the open fire exit and muliplied the number by the entry price, then by the number of weeks in the year. The fashion caught on. The record companies did the same for their records, for their CDs. Then the software companies managers saw it as a great theft.

You see, they couldn’t work out how to sell more stuff through having people want to buy it, so they tried finding ways to claim it wasn’t their fault they didn’t sell more – it was all those darn’ pirates! Some execs even basing their stragy not on making people want to buy their products, but making people buy their products because they had to. They were doing a really good job, and should still get their million dollar share option bonuses, really they should.

Now they had a big stick, and they could wave it around and screech a lot, just like you’ve seen the chimpanzees do in the jungle on TV. So the record company executives waved their big sticks and screeched a lot at the politicians.

The message they carried was “Everyone’s stealing off us, we need protection!”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to be called a thief when I’m not. I don’t like the idea that I am considered guilty and they don’t care a toss about proving anyone’s innocence: after all, you can’t trust your customers, can you?

Once you break the trust barrier, things can only get worse. The only way back is a complete volte face and with the size of the egos these people have, that ain’t easy. And that’s why they need Microsoft, and why Microsoft needs DRM, to gain control over yet another sector, and to solidify and extend their Windows monopoly.

We’ll see how much Hollywood squeals when Microsoft is the only way to get their content out onto people’s home cinema systems. It won’t be like now where there are a handfull of distributors which can all be played off of one another – there’ll be a handfull of studios that Microsoft will play off one another. Sole beneficiary? The Microsoft Monopoly.

Ultimately, that’s what DRM is really all about.

2 comments on “Who needs DRM?

  1. Nicely written article, its scary to think that we are losing our consumer rights bit by bit and instead of having freedom of choice, we seem to be dictated on how we experience things these days…sheesh

  2. Thanks for stopping by, ashz, it’s a sad trend that results from the huge influence Corporates have on the US Government. With so much money needing to be spent to win an election these days, this can only favour the big donors at the expense of the people for whom the election should be all about.

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