Friday, October 7, 2011

Will you explain why DRM is bad?

I was asked on twitter to explain why DRM is bad.  Given I have spent more than a decade talking about this topic, you would think there is a simple twitter-length answer: but there isn't.

Whether you believe the acronym expands to Digital Rights Management, Digital Restrictions Management, or Dishonest Relationship Misinformation, it doesn't define a specific technology or technique.  The acronym is used to refer to non-controversial technologies such as databases describing content and eCommerce websites, to highly controversial things such as digital locks which lock out the owners of what is locked.

We can't entirely avoid using confusing terms, as people will immediately say "Aren't you talking about DRM" when you want to speak about specific harmful activities.  It is very useful to be clear whenever the time is available.

When some people are concerned about DRM they are concerned about the inability to loan electronic books, or to exercise their fair dealing rights.  While that is peripherally interesting to me, and I agree with some and disagree with other of these ideas, my main concern is impacts which are entirely outside of copyright.  I am happy to discuss (including in comments below, or on the site) copyright related topics, but for the purpose of this article I am going to talk about things which are unrelated to copyright.

The two techniques I have been fighting against are anti-interoperability locks on content, and non-owner locks on devices.

I believe it should be obvious why having a lock, digital or otherwise, which locks the owner out of what they own is wrong.  In our society most people have at least a minimum of respect for the concept of property rights, and believe that if locks exist it should be the owner that controls them.  Locks should certainly never be allowed to be abused to lock the owner out of what they own, and our laws should protect the owner against such scenarios.  I would be happy to discuss this more if people want, but I am honest in saying that I can't understand why people demonstrate such a lack of respect for or understanding why governments property rights in these discussions.

It shouldn't matter if what is locked is our homes, our cars, or our computers: we should never allow for digital exceptionalism where we ignore basic property rights if the property happens to be digital technology.

The anti-interoperability lock on content ties the ability to access the content to specific brands of devices.   This is harmful in a variety of ways, including being what I consider to be a textbook example of tied selling as described in section 77 of our competition act.   Governments have competition and anti-trust laws for a reason, and again we should not throw away this body of law simply because the tied selling includes something digital.

I don't believe that copyright holders should have the right to decide what brands of technology I use, or what features should exist in the technology that is created and sold.  That said, those who support this policy should recognize that in the vast majority of real-world scenarios it is not the copyright holder that controls the keys to these digital locks.  It is the vendor of the DRM system, a technology company, that controls the keys.  Any digital lock, analog or digital, protects the interests of the key-holder and not necessarily the owner.  I have observed many copyright holders switch their position from being in strong support of technological measures being added to copyright law to being strong opponents once they realized that they as copyright holders would not have the keys or any real-world control over these digital locks.

More important to me, these anti-interoperability locks tie people to non-owner locked devices, something I believe should be prohibited in law.  My primary issue in this debate is the protection of the tangible property rights of technology owners.  Even if it were copyright holders that held the keys to the digital locks on their content, and even if there was a shred of evidence that these locks reduced copyright infringement (most evidence suggests increases), I would still disagree that this justified the legalization of non-owner locks on our devices or anti-competitive behaviour that encouraged the use of non-owner locked devices.

While I believe that these two controversial locks should be prohibited in law,  Bill C-11 (and C-32 and C-61 before them) provide legal protection for them.   While these bills are called "An Act to amend the Copyright Act", the digital locks provisions are not related to the subject matter of copyright law.  In fact, these digital locks have been and will continue to be abused to circumvent the contours of existing laws including contract, e-commerce, property, competition, trade and even copyright.

We have a long way to go in this conversation.  In my mind anyone who respects contract, e-commerce, property, competition, trade, and/or copyright should be opposed to "technological measures" being added to the copyright act.  Legal protection for "technological measures" must be added to the correct law in order for them not to be abused to circumvent the law.

If a technical measure is protecting contracting terms, including a copyright license agreement, then the legal protection should be in provincial contract law.

If a technical measure is protecting electronic commerce, then the legal protection should be in provincial e-commerce law.

And so on...

Hope this helps, and sorry that there isn't a twitter-sized response to this question.  There is a lack of clarity in what the acronym means, which add to the confusion that most of the impacts of adding "technological measures" to copyright law have nothing to do with copyright.

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