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  • Not About the Expo: The Ticking DRM Time Bomb

    January 9th, 2007

    I can tell you with absolute certainly that 99.99% of all Mac sites are busy ramping up their coverage of Macworld Expo, and we are too, although we’ll focus more on commentary than in presenting things you can read almost everywhere. In addition, a huge portion of the traditional media is right there behind them, or ahead of them if you choose to go that route.

    This means much of what I might say that is related to the keynote Steve Jobs is delivering will find its way into the trash bin of unfounded rumors and speculation. Although I also co-host a radio show on the paranormal, as most of you know, I am definitely not gifted in that area. I just try to wade through the morass of confusion and try to shed a little light from time to time.

    Instead, I’m going to expand on something that author and commentator Kirk McElhearn talked to me about when he appeared on The Tech Night Owl LIVE last Thursday, and which I expanded upon in our newsletter this week. And that is: What would you do if the music you downloaded suddenly stopped working?

    This may not seem a likely prospect, but hear me out.

    You may not believe that Apple Computer will go out of business anytime soon. Certainly — even though you may hate them with a passion — Microsoft is also there for the long haul. But imagine how the situation might change over the next few decades when it comes to content formats. Today consumer electronics makers are battling over two high definition DVD formats. Even if one of those formats emerges triumphant in the near term, or both reside in an uneasy truce with multiple format players there to fill the gaps, it won’t be very long before it all becomes obsolete.

    Now even though there’s the possibility of an optical disc wearing out over time, you can otherwise be assured that, so long as you have the proper playing device, your CD, DVD, or whatever will still play normally. They will not expire, just as your LP and cassette collection won’t expire.

    Consider now the situation with one of those subscription-based music download services. Once you invest in this sort of service, you are forever tethered to the company, because your music library has to be reauthorized on a monthly basis. If your credit card is declined, or you cancel it for any reason, you’ll have only a limited time to change your payment options before you lose your music and have to select and download everything again. Imagine spending weeks or months finding the stuff you want, only to be forced to go through that process a second time.

    Even if that doesn’t happen, what if the company goes out of business or changes its marketing plan? Either way, how will they deal with subscribers, and even those who bought songs outright? When it comes time to reauthorize their PCs, will there be a successor company to handle the traffic and keep things working? It’s very doubtful.

    But I’m sure the vast majority of you use iTunes instead. I’m also sure that you expect Apple to be in business forever, and the fact that you can authorize up to five computers (Macs and PCs) to handle the files you purchased should be a comfort to you. If you buy a new Mac, you just deauthorize the old one and you’re good to go.

    On the other hand, do you truly expect Apple to continue to produce Macs forever? Even assuming the company continues to prosper, what will the computer of, say, 2027, look like and how will music and videos be handled? Will they provide support for the legacy product you bought years earlier?

    In an ideal world, Apple would simply allow you to upgrade for a modest fee, so that you could continue to enjoy the fruits of your investment. I would hope Microsoft would take a similar approach, although the existing PlaysForSure partners must feel a sense of doom in light of the existence of the Zune.

    In the end, though, it’s not Apple’s fault, and not Microsoft’s either. You see, the entertainment companies insisted on these restrictions because they’re desperately afraid of piracy. Obviously, downloading a file is a lot simpler than handing someone a copy made from a physical recording. So simple in fact, that the ravage of piracy persists even though there are legal ways to get this content, and the DRM schemes really aren’t all that onerous to most of us.

    Since it’s the fault of the content makers, they need to figure out what to do if the time bomb goes off — or as Kirk calls it — the machine stops working. They have to learn to stop treating their customers like criminals and show the proper degree of respect. More to the point, they should work with the existing distributors to find a way out of this potential nightmare. Whether it’s a conversion system or a way to just free the stuff of DRM, I can’t say.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think the entertainment industry really cares about such things. They’d be just as happy to force you to buy everything all over again. That’s irresponsible and greedy, of course, but that’s the way it is.



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    4 Responses to “Not About the Expo: The Ticking DRM Time Bomb”

    1. irri says:

      I don’t really see the problem here. When you buy from iTunes you should do a backup (either in data or Audio CD format) just as you should do it with a regular CD. I think there is a bigger chance that your disk crashes than Apple goes out of business. In case you have an Audio CD you don’t need any machine up and runninng at the other side anymore to let you hear to your music. With subscription services, they can always return whatever credit you had left should they close their doors

    2. I don’t really see the problem here. When you buy from iTunes you should do a backup (either in data or Audio CD format) just as you should do it with a regular CD. I think there is a bigger chance that your disk crashes than Apple goes out of business. In case you have an Audio CD you don’t need any machine up and runninng at the other side anymore to let you hear to your music. With subscription services, they can always return whatever credit you had left should they close their doors

      Well, you do raise the larger issues. You need to do a backup, and bear in mind that a backup DVD of a movie you downloaded cannot be played on a separate DVD playback device.

      Subscription services? Return what? You pay them for a service, and when or if they close their doors, your investment goes out the window. What makes you think they’d give you “credit” or even the time of day?

      Peace,
      Gene

    3. Snufkin says:

      The bomb in DRM are the restrictions imposed by Vista on hardware and all matching drivers etc. If ANY opportunity for someone to even theoretically intercept ‘premium content’ and copy it is detected, everything clamps down. The possibilities for millions of working computers to be suddenly rendered useless are endless. (See http://www.cs.auckland.ac.nz/~pgut001/pubs/vista_cost.txt )

      The intriguing (poetic, even) thought from this is the probability that the only way manufacturers can even hope to produce Vista-compliant computers that will stay on their feet is for absolute integration of all components. No third-party add-ons at all. No video cards, no external monitors, no modifications, nothing.

      Just like an iMac.

      Only worse, no third party software….. 🙁

    4. bquady says:

      DRM Data Death (I think I just coined that phrase) is a scary issue only if you have both the moral certainty that file sharing is the equivalent to theft AND the moral certainty that your purchase only “entitles” you to enjoy that single instance of the data.

      If you don’t have the former then you probably already have some mix of licit and illicit data. You know how to acquire desired data in both markets, black and white, or can learn easily. The licit market is often more convenient, so you still use it, and you put up with some DRM annoyances. But DRM Data Death does not scare you because you cannot be kept from any particular data for long. The trend is toward EASIER illicit acquisition of DRM-free data.

      If you DO have the former then you’re still okay unless you also have the latter. Here’s why: say you buy DRM-afflicted album X and the rights holder kills your data one way or the other. Having already paid for album X once, you would feel perfectly justified in re-acquiring it through illicit channels. The only way that wouldn’t make sense for you is if you thought there was something magical about the particular bits you bought, that they were unique and irreplaceable, and that you only bought the right to enjoy that data, not analogous data from a different source.

      There are always “suckers” who don’t understand the landscape a bit, who will throw good money after bad endlessly, and they will always pay more than they should. That’s a shame, naturally. But if you’re reading this, chances are that you are not at much risk of Data Death.

      Another nit-picky kind of thing for Gene: I would suggest that the word “investment” is not relevant at all with subscription services. I think that’s kind of what you where getting at, but I think you should be more precise.

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