Digital Rights Management

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As the Internet progresses in both popularity and structure, DRM is going to become very important in moving away from the early free-for-all towards a more paid-for model. However, there is an argument over the degree of restriction of freedom that DRM appears to lead toward.

Copyright has always included an element of ‘fair use’, which gives the consumer a certain degree of freedom. For example, you are allowed to quote or criticise another person’s work or, in certain countries (not in the UK despite what many seem to believe), copy works for personal use. Many people fear that these are the sort of rights that would be trampled by pervasive DRM.

On the other hand, many of those same people agree that some form of DRM is undoubtedly required if the commerce of ideas, concepts and abstract works is to progress.

This much-discussed problem is at least partly due to the digital age we live in: it is now perfectly possible to make fully functional copies of work, at a fraction of the cost of developing it yourself.

You only have to look at the phenomenal number of illegal music files and software packages available on the internet to realise what an issue this is for people who make a living from something that can be distributed digitally.

Some people get a bit hysterical when they hear the term DRM, as they tend to assume that it means ‘big brother’ style controls on what we can see and hear on the net. But the concept of protecting digital content and the intellectual property and/or copyright contained within, has been around for a while. Copy protection of CDs, software (e.g. activation on windows XP) and computer games are all examples of primitive DRM systems.

DRM can be taken much further than this though and be used to control content on a more fine-grained level. For example, DRM applied to music files could allow you to play them on the computer you downloaded them on, and make one copy to play in the car, but then deny further copying or playing on other devices. Alternatively, it could allow you to hear the song once before self-destructing. In effect, any method of distribution and licensing that the copyright owner can conceive can in theory be enforced.

However, here is where DRM currently falls down. The distribution and licensing can only be enforced in theory because in order to work, the content has to be viewed / played on a device or with software that supports the particular flavour of DRM that you wish to apply. For example, as soon as you allow a file to be burnt to a standard CD, you have lost all control of it and limitless copies can again be made.

We arrive at a strange Catch 22 situation, whereby DRM is useless unless everybody adopts the same system, but people won’t start to adopt a system that restricts their use so severely in the first instance.

The lack of widely available, reliable DRM is given by the record industry as a main reason for not launching online distribution channels themselves. But DRM won’t become widely available until the music industry adopts it for online distribution.

As more and more intellectual property and copyright is distributed through email and the web, there is a greater need for a way of controlling this content. Slowly but surely, DRM technologies will become embedded into more and more software applications and hardware devices. As a recent example, Apple iTunes is an online music store which embeds DRM into the songs downloaded. Microsoft Office 2003 also embeds DRM enabling technologies, as does Windows Media Player.

An overly restrictive DRM solution will scare consumers away from protected content; but if content can be distributed freely with no reimbursement for the creator, then innovation and the development and sharing of new and exciting ideas will be stifled.

In the end, the answer to the issues surrounding DRM will have to be a delicate balancing act between consumers on the one hand, and copyright owners and intellectual property creators on the other.

Publication Date: Tuesday 11th November, 2003
Author: Thom Leggett View profile

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