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Monday, February 12, 2001
Digital rights management's hidden dangers


"...As a growing population of users has mastered the electronic distribution of content, digital rights management (aka DRM) has become Ground Zero in heated debate over that content's proper care and handling. Numerous systems, standards and technologies have been invented to prevent the illegal copying of digital material, and the debates they've sparked are as torrid as the subject is complex.

What's wrong with DRM? Quite simple: It is mainly concerned with the illegal use of material and cares little about the lawful customer. If you've bought a book, a CD or a videotape, you expect to have the right to pass it on to a friend or a member of your family. Whether this other person does something illegal with it shouldn't be your problem, and it certainly should not limit your use of your rightfully acquired possession. The first concern of any DRM solution should be to make sure that the intended user of the content doesn't experience any constraint on his legitimate use of the content he has acquired. Any system that doesn't offer the customer this basic consideration is doomed.

One could counter that digital content is different, since it isn't bound to a physical carrier. That's true, but the distinction is trivial for most end users. Does anybody in the content business really think Mr. or Ms. Consumer distinguishes between copying a CD to a cassette and burning a CD? Why should copying files to a MP3 player be different from making a special tape for your workout? For content providers, the ultimate question is whether consumers will put up with such restrictions. Never mind the pirates; if legal users reject DRM, it could spell trouble for content providers and technology suppliers alike.

The content industry can learn a simple lesson gleaned the hard way by software publishers: Copy protection is not accepted by the market. No mass-market software publisher in his right mind would bring out copy-protected software nowadays; users hate it, and it doesn't really stop hackers from pirating the programs anyway.

The only cases where (hardware) copy protection is grudgingly accepted by users are vertical-market solutions for professionals, such as high-end 3D rendering packages. Isn't it ironic that the same Microsoft that is now defending stringent DRM schemes for e-books doesn't use copy protection on its software products? Why? Because the company would sell less copies and would be more vulnerable to competition..."



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