Two years later, DRM still not dead

MCMWednesday, January 21, 2009

It was June 2006 when I read about Captain Copyright on Boing Boing, how Access Copyright was planning to brainwash kids in schools with tales about how to obey "proper" copyright rules. It drove me a little bit crazy. And when paired with first-hand knowledge of the kind of prison camp "Big Media" wanted to impose on the world, I decided to take action. I wanted to give kids an alternative to the one-sided argument they were going to be force fed.

So I created a book called "The Pig and the Box", about a pig that puts the equivalent of DRM (digital rights management) on some magic buckets to make his friends miserable. It was fun to write, silly to read, and ultimately extremely popular. Of the stats I can count, the PDF version of the story has been downloaded well over a million times. In fourteen languages, too, translated by people all over the world. It obviously struck a chord.

A few months later, I was writing an episode of RollBots called "The Do Right Module" about special modchips that interfere with the proper functioning of the main characters, and I remember saying to my wife: "Just think: when this thing airs in 2009, DRM could be dead, and nobody would get the joke." It was more of a wish than anything, but I thought it would be interesting to see where we are after two years of social evolution.

There have been some victories. Just recently, iTunes dropped DRM on all its songs. They still tag the files so they can trace them back to you, but that's a psychological deterrent, not a technological one. Apple's concession is a massive victory, and when it happened, I seriously thought my wish was going to come true. We were finally within striking distance of being DRM-free!

But then last night I put a DVD into my Mac Mini (acts as a media server, hooked up my TV) that we'd just bought from Amazon. Chug, chug, chug, goes the Mini... Then a warning onscreen: the disc won't play. Not a valid playback device. I ejected the DVD, tried an older one, and lo and behold! the drive was mangled! It was no longer a valid playback device at all! Luckily, I was able to kickstart the thing back into shape after an hour of research, and all was well.

Except I still had a DVD that I couldn't play. Some more research revealed that these discs used a new form of DRM that kept them from being viewed on certain computer-based drives. So I'd bought something that was utterly useless, all because the manufacturer believed their DRM would solve their problems.

A quick check on the Pirate Bay later, and I saw that was not the case.

I'm returning the disc to Amazon (it's defective, after all) and I hope the message gets back that these kinds of things will not be tolerated. It seemed to work with Apple, so maybe there's some merit in the belief.

Likewise, eBooks are a big nuisance to me because of DRM. I have bought books that (because of various connection glitches) became spontaneously de-authorized in the middle of reading, and I couldn't finesse the software to let me finish what I was doing. Most companies that deal with DRM have entire departments set up to deal with customer complaints when things go wrong. Entire departments. That alone should be a hint that there's something wrong with their business models.

So where do we stand after all this time? Are companies any closer to realizing that DRM stinks? Will my kids grow up in a world where the words "not authorized" are a foreign concept? Hard to say. We're making progress, but we're not there yet. Maybe give it a few more years, with a healthy dose of customer backlash, and we'll be all right.

On the plus side, the book and episode are still relevant!

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