Free software advocates rallied against certain limits on copying music and films on Tuesday in a global "Day against DRM" (Digital Rights Management), saying consumers are robbed of their fair-use rights as entertainment goes digital and online.
Groups of concerned consumers and technologists handed out leaflets during rush hours and lunch breaks in American and European cities like Boston, Zurich, Paris and London, alongside an Internet campaign to raise awareness.
Some leaflets pictured a silhouette similar to those from the iconic Apple advertising campaign with hands tied together with iPod earpiece cords, symbolizing the limitations of iTunes customers who can play their songs only on iPod music players, unlike compact disks which work on players from any brand.
"This is not aimed against Apple . We're focusing on iPod because it popularizes that DRM is acceptable," said Peter Brown, executive director of the Free Software Foundation (FSF) which initiated the DefectiveByDesign.org campaign.
DRM refers to software and other technologies used to control digital content. It is implemented by technology and media companies in online music stores and in new optical disk formats like Blu-ray DVD.
DRM means that consumers are restricted in making copies of songs, films and documents they purchase legally, which is why its opponents have dubbed it "Digital Restrictions Management."
DRM rules differ among online stores and media carriers, but foundations like FSF and the Electronic Frontier Foundation fear that the rules will become stricter over time.
"Apple's DRM is relatively benign. But Amazon Unbox' user license is very restrictive and (Microsoft ) Windows Media Player 11 user agreement is incredibly intrusive and restrictive. The restrictions demanded by the media companies can get tougher, because the technology companies are now competing to get access to the media," Brown said.
Apple and media companies have said that absence of a DRM mechanism opens the door to widespread piracy and will threaten the future of legal online sales of digital content.
Consumer groups do not stand alone in their criticism.
The British Library last week voiced its concern after it found that of 30 licensing agreements recently offered to the library for use of digital material, 28 were more restrictive than the rights existing under current copyright law.
"Our concern is that, if unchecked, this trend will drastically reduce public access, thus significantly undermining the strength and vitality of our creative and educational sectors," Chief Executive Lynne Brindley said in a statement.
Several industry initiatives have failed to create a common and interoperable DRM system.
Consumer interest groups claim that the entertainment industry should not use DRM at all, despite rampant piracy on file-sharing sites of unprotected songs and movies.
"It's a lie that people will steal if you don't put locks on the stuff. Of course it's illegal to steal. But that's no reason to deny people the right to use content fairly," Brown said, referring to "fair use" of copies for private use.