Saturday, April 21, 2012

Keeping it Simple

The copyright industries claim that DRM is necessary to prevent copyright infringement.

Yet, copyright infringement continues.

What solution do the copyright industries propose? Even more restrictive DRM!

Albert Einstein said, the definition of madness is repeating the same action, over and over, hoping for a different result.

Legitimate user experience

It goes without saying that the only people who are impacted by DRM are legitimate users. 

What do these conscientious and law-abiding citizens get for their troubles?

No.1: A higher price 

The company that produces the music/film/game is likely to try to covers the cost of the expensive R&D that created the DRM that monitors and restricts legitimate use by setting a higher sale price for legitimate users. 

No.2: A worse product

The legitimate user who pays money for a copyright protected game with DRM may not be able to play the game without first registering her name, address and current account details with a remote host who is only then in a position to verify that she is indeed a legitimate user. 

The legitimate user who pays money for a copyright protected song with DRM may not be able to play the song on the MP3 player of his choice because the proprietary file format is not supported by the device. 

I have deliberately chosen examples at the milder end of the DRM spectrum, but the annoyance and resentment these restrictions engender are nevertheless real and genuine.

Meanwhile, the legitimate user's friend downloads the same game with no DRM and for no cost via BitTorent, she does not have to provide any personally identifiable information with a third party, she does not have to connect to the internet every time she wants to play the game, she does not have to have her use of the game monitored, time-stamped and data mined, and she is nor forced to download periodic updates and patches. The resemblance between certain types of DRM and malware/spyware is striking.

After a couple of months of being bullied and spied upon the legitimate user might think, 'Hang on a second, I am getting a raw deal here. Next time, I'll just download it off the Internet!' and the cycle of higher prices and an inferior user experience for legimate users perpetuates, driving more people to engage in copyright infingement, sending the copyright industries into a death spiral.  

This malaise is wholly avoidable, if both sides of the debate are willing to counternance a few home truths. This is not to endorse copyright infringement. But, if one is going to attempt to solve the problem, one has to at least try to understand from where the problem stems.

The social contract

There is an active debate in certain political circles at the moment about ending the 'war on drugs'. One of the few areas of agreement in that debate is that the rhetroric 'war on drugs' has not been helpful. Creators, publishers and technologists should avoid making the same mistake. Calling something a war is likely to polarise people and create entrenched positions on both sides. It is much more productive to talk about what is clearly a problem from a position of openness in order to engage in rational debate. I feel like I need to clarify these self-evident propositions because of the way in which language is so often rendered toxic by political debate.

In a spirit of reconciliation, I would like to point out what both sides are doing wrong and how to make a change in behaviour more likely.

Enlightenment thinkers used to talk about something called the 'social contract' which says that in a civilised society people should be willing to give up certain 'freedoms' in order to live more prosperously together. In the 'state of nature' described by Thomas Hobbes as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short", I am free to steal from whomever I want, whenever I want. But in a civilised society, the citizens agree to cede that freedom so that others will do the same. Individual citizens have a responsibility to behave in a way that accords due respect to the social contract that binds them with their fellows citizens.

As I have already outlined, the relationship that exists between individuals and the copyright industries is not equitable and it is therefore in their power to reverse the self-defeating practices that are driving still more people to engage in copyright infringement, costing them still more money. 

I would propose two changes. Both are simple. 

No. 1: Remove the DRM. 

As Corey Doctorow points out, "DRM is broken in minutes, sometimes days. Rarely months". It is ineffective, intrusive and only impacts legitimate users. 

No.2: Lower your prices. 

CDs and DVDs are comparatively inexpensive to produce and a digital download costs even less. Yet, iTunes charges 80p per song and Amazon charges upwards of £8.99 for an e-book, the same as a paperback copy. 

Avoid a pirate's charter

Lowering the price and removing the DRM would immediately make legitimate purchases of digital goods a more attractive proposition. And what is the best way to win customers in a competitive market place? By convincing customers your product is better than your competitor's product. Every executive in the copyright industries should be looking to promote their foremost competitive advantage to its utmost. What is that advantage? Legitimacy. Don't laugh! Illegitimate users run the risk of downloading all manner of malware and spyware, which is why it is so stupid for the copyright industries to argue in favour of greater surveillance to protect their products. SOPA, PIPA and ACTA are a pirate's charter writ large! Users do not want that and the copyright industries should not want it either.

I don't expect the problem to vanish over night. The swamp of resentment created by the heavy-handed practices of media conglomerates is not going to subside in an instant. A minority of people will never be convinced. Over time, however, a more reasonable price and the freedom of people to use the goods they purchase as they desire would give the copyright industries a chance to survive and thrive. My hope is that, for the vast majority, if it is in their rational self-interest to buy a legitimate copy, they will.

If that does not work, we need a new system of production, payment and distribution, and I have got a few ideas about that as well.

This is the first post in a new series of articles about copyright. I am not pretending to have anything like all the answers, but in writing these articles I hope to tease out some of the subtleties of the arguments on both sides and in so doing move the debate forward. 


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