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Excellent DRM debate from my Bittorrent article

If you’ve read my Wired profile of Bittorrent creator Bram Cohen, check out this excellent debate taking place online — prompted by Cory Doctorow, a brilliant sci-fi author and Boing Boing blogger extraordinaire. Last week, Cory posted that while he liked my piece …

… the only place I took issue with it is where Clive talks about Microsoft DRM being useful to “keep content out of pirate hands” — there is not a single piece of content in the history of the universe that has been “kept out of pirate hands” (i.e. kept off the Internet, or prevented from being stamped out in pirate CD factories abroad) by DRM. It’s a weird kind of Big Lie strategy by the DRM people to talk about how DRM can prevent “piracy” when there has never, ever been an example of this happening … It’s a statement that’s so categorically untrue, it seems to come from a parallel universe with different laws of physics and economics.

He’s got a point. I think I misspoke — or rather, miswrote — that sentence that he quotes of mine. Cory is quite right when he argues DRM is generally very easy to crack. (I’m a good example of that; every time I’ve bought a downloaded song from Napster or Rhapsody, I’ve immediately ripped it into MP3 format. That’s technically illegal to do — it’s an act of so-called piracy — but my several-years-old MP3 player won’t play the ridiculous DRM formats that Napster and Real/Rhapsody use. To play the music as they sell it to me, I’d have to buy a whole new MP3 player. Essentially, they’re forcing me to upgrade my player every year just to listen to music, which is pretty annoying, right?)

What’s more, Cory is also right that DRM is an obnoxious bit of business, serving mostly just to infuriate customers and hand way too much power to copyright owners. For example, I subscribe to Rhapsody — the streaming-music service — and while I generally think it’s a superb deal (10 bucks a month for all the music you can listen to), the service often does bizarre things, such as deleting music. You’ll have a cool album on your playlist for months, then wake up one day to discover it’s gone … because the copyright owner decided to back out of Rhapsody’s service. Sure, that’s perfectly legal for them to do — but it’s a huge pain for me, the consumer.

So, given that I actually share most of Cory’s objections to DRM, why exactly was I endorsing it in the article? Well, like I said, I wasn’t precise enough in my phrasing. What I meant to say was this: DRM will never keep content out of the hands of pirates. But in an ideal world, it gives copyright owners a reasonable way to release their warez; the vast majority of people will obey the DRM, a small minority will pirate it, and if the content service is run well and inexpensively, everybody’s happy, right?

However, that’s a huge “if”, since I don’t think any DRM-protected content service really works right now (though Rhapsody is the closest). And, as Cory points out in his post, there are so many other problems with DRM — such as the fact that content owners can change the rules as they go and make your paid-for content “vanish” — that one could reasonably conclude that DRM is a total bust. You could argue fairly that I was being pretty naive in assuming the marketplace of content owners will suddenly become more enlightened than they’ve been in the past.

However, Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired, fired back at Cory — arguing on his blog that Cory’s position is too idealistic. A brief snippet:

If some form of DRM encourages publishers, consumer electronics makers and retailers to release more, better and cheaper digital media and devices, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This is just being realistic: much as we might want it to be otherwise, content owners still call most of the shots. If a little protection allows them to throw their weight behind a lot of progress towards realizing the potential of digital media, consumers will see a net benefit … The real question is this: how much DRM is too much? Clearly the marketplace thinks that the protections in the iPod and iTunes are acceptable, since they’re selling like mad.

Cory and Chris’ exchange opened up a rich, sprawling debate on blogs, so if you’re intrigued by this stuff go check it out! (Cory has written several ripostes to Chris’ post.)

Sorry I’m coming to this late … I was travelling again last week, and away from the blog for the last time in 2004!

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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