Wednesday, December 07, 2005

How DRM Punishes Listeners:

I’m going to bore you about DRM (Digital Rights Management) today. First, here’s a quick quiz: Arnold Able buys a brand new Van Zandt Sony CD and plays it on his computer. Bernie Beeble finds a pirated copy of the Van Zandt songs on the web and downloads them to play them. Sony certainly wants to punish these guys. Which one do they go after?

The answer is, they go after poor Arnold. When he puts his CD in the drive and plays the music, they install software that makes it easy for hackers to control his computer and delete its files, even if he has firewall and anti-virus software on his machine. Sony’s software will also prevent him from copying any digital music CD accurately by adding NOISE to the copy, even if it’s music Arnold wrote himself. Bernie gets a free ride unless Sony (or the RIAA) decides it’s worth it to sue him. The pirates who illegally ripped the music and made it available to Bernie are usually too hard to find, and won’t be pursued.

Ed Felton has written a fascinating and somewhat technical essay about how Digital Rights Management, which is supposed to prevent users from copying music, is instead used as a weapon among music manufacturers. This essay builds upon a theme at his web site, which is that CDs encumbered with DRM tend to punish the people who buy the CDs, but do hardly anything to stem the tide of serious music copying (which is done primarily by commercial pirates and people who do not buy, or know how to subvert, the DRM-laden CDs).

In this case, he speculates about the XCP DRM kit, which Sony included in a number of recent CDs. Sony was quite frustrated that its CDs could not be played in a controlled way in Apple iTunes. Apple however is uses its own DRM to keep other manufacturers out of iTunes, and when RealNetworks reverse-engineered iTunes in order to be compatible with it, Apple threatened them with a DMCA lawsuit, and then changed iTunes to be incompatible again.

Sony vented their frustration at their website:
Sony BMG wants music to be easily transferable to any device that supports secure music. Currently, music from our protected CDs may be transferred to hundreds of such devices, as both Microsoft and Sony have assisted to make the user experience on our discs as seamless as possible with their secure formats.
Unfortunately, in order to directly and smoothly rip content into iTunes it requires the assistance of Apple. To date, Apple has not been willing to cooperate with our protection vendors to make ripping to iTunes and to the iPod a simple experience.
If you believe that you should be able to easily move tracks …

And yet, amazingly, Sony’s XCP CDs actually contained the necessary software to hack into iTunes on an enduser’s computer, in order to be compatible with it. But Sony did not use that capability. Felton speculates that “SonyBMG wanted to avoid the public spectacle of two DRM companies fighting with each other. DRM advocates like to argue (against the evidence) that the only impact of DRM is to prevent infringement. When DRM companies fight over compatibility, this just emphasizes the role of DRM as a strategic tool companies use to lock other … out of markets, and that sets back the cause of DRM. Much better from SonyBMG’s viewpoint, perhaps, to maintain the fiction of one big happy DRM family, even if customers suffer.”

Oh and by the way, the software in XCP that’s capable of hacking into iTunes utilizes software stolen in violation of the LGPL. (This theft meant that no one had to spend many hours reverse engineering iTunes.) Apparently stealing software is okay, as long as it’s done to keep people from copying music.

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