Why you should oppose the spread of digital rights management

Stop the DRM Habit image by O'Reilly Media
Stop the DRM Habit image by O'Reilly Media
Stop the DRM Habit image by O’Reilly Media

Did you know that today (Tuesday 3 May) is International Day Against Digital Rights Management? I suspect your answer may be no as so far the battle against digital rights management (DRM) has not yet captured the popular imagination in the way that the current battle over strong encryption has.

I believe this state of affairs needs to change and, as we enter the internet of things era, we must not allow digital rights management to extend its reach beyond our computer software and into our everyday household devices and even into our very bodies. Here are my top reasons for opposing DRM.

DRM doesn’t prevent unauthorised file sharing, compelling digital services do

It’s an open secret that most people working in technology don’t like DRM very much and find it a pain to work with. Rights holders, however, continue to insist that DRM is necessary to prevent piracy or unauthorised file sharing and make sure people ‘play by the rules’.

Research in the area of file sharing is always contested. In my view, however, the evidence points towards the carrot of providing compelling, easy to use digital services rather than the stick of DRM restrictions and related legal enforcement measures. The COPIA institute’s report, entitled The Carrot or the Stick? Innovation Vs Anti-Piracy enforcement notes:

“we found little evidence to suggest that the combination of the carrot and the stick is needed. While some entertainment industry executives have argued that these kinds of anti-piracy laws are necessary for authorized services to feel comfortable launching in these countries, the evidence suggests this is simply not true.”

DRM facilitates consumer lock-in

Got a Kindle? Chances are, your library will consist of ebooks bought exclusively through Amazon rather than from a selection of booksellers.

This outcome isn’t simply the result of Amazon offering seamless integration between Kindle hardware and their digital bookstore (which it does). Virtually all publishers insist on encumbering their books with proprietary DRM which only works with certain hardware. This means Kindle ebooks only work on Kindle devices and can’t (legally) be transferred to the Nook or Sony’s ereader.

In placing an artificial restriction on where book lovers can buy and read their ebooks, DRM undermines competition and innovation. Of course there are ways to remove DRM from your ebooks so that you can read them on any device but this is never going to be a mainstream pursuit. Furthemore, under copyright law, it is unlawful to remove DRM even on media you own. This legal barrier prevents companies from making a device capable of reading , regardless of where you purchased them.

Furthermore, legal measures known as anti-circumvention provisions mean it is technically illegal to remove DRM from files, even for media that you purchased. The threat of legal action prevents companies from offering an ebook reader that can read every kind of ebook because to do so would involve removing DRM and converting the ebooks into a standard format.

DRM in web standards threatens permissionless innovation

To date, the development of the web has been characterised by ‘permissionless’ innovation. A person (or most likely a team of people) has a new idea for a new browser feature that users will love, implements it in a browser built using freely accessible standards defined by the W3C consortium and, if the idea proves popular, the person or team enjoys success. Writing for The Guardian today, Cory Doctorow reminds us that 10 years or so ago it was Mozilla who chose to integrate pop-up adblocking into its Firefox browser, a move which delighted users frustrated the ads but which angered publishers who thought they were just great.

Fast forward to May 2016 and the W3C has just last month agreed to proceed with the integration of DRM into web standards as part of its work on Encrypted Media Extensions. In this glorious DRM-encumbered future, any company wanting to include video playback features in their browser will have to get permission from a small group of media companies behind the new EME standard. This will give media companies the power to restrict consumer-friendly innovation. Want users to be able to watch Netflix on your new browser? Better not allow users to install privacy and security-protecting plugins such as Privacy Badger or UBlock Origin.

The elevation of DRM to a core standard of the open web platform tilts the scales away from disruptive innovation which benefits end and back in the direction of cosy, industry-friendly innovation.

DRM and the internet of things

DRM books are just the tip of a very large iceberg. Virtually every week tech blogs such as Techdirt and BoingBoing report on how the internet of things means DRM is rapidly embedding itself in our daily lives.

At best, the spread of DRM is annoying and harmful to consumer choice. For example, Keurig used DRM in the embedded software of its coffee maker to prevent users from using coffee capsules made by other companies. Similarly, there was a public outcry last year when Philip issued a software update to its ‘Hue’ smart lighting system, which overnight prevented compatible non-Philips lightbulbs users purchased from working with the system.

At its worst, DRM poses a growing risk to our health and personal safety. Due to the legal penalties for breaking DRM on software, security researchers were reluctant to report concerns over the potential for hackers to take control of cars via their embedded software systems. Similarly, restrictions on examining car software meant it was more difficult for researchers to spot the problems at VW which resulted in the global scandal over falsified diesel emissions results.

With connected devices becoming the norm, it looks as though DRM is going to be more and more part of our lives unless we stand together and take action. Please support the fight against DRM and help make sure a good few more people know about International Day Against DRM in 2017.

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