Protecting Consumers from DRM

Consumer rights advocates and media companies have been fighting over data rights management (DRM) software for many years now. In the age of the closing digital media store, the negative effects of DRM are more apparent than ever before.

Just a few days ago Yahoo! announced it would be closing its music store, taking the authentication server for its DRM offline in September. This will leave its users without access to the content they bought once they: switch computers, alter their operating system or try to copy their Yahoo! store music to an MP3 player. Luckily for Yahoo! customers the company has said it will compensate them for music they bought. Yahoo!'s solution is to port their users’ music over to RealNetwork's Rhapsody music service and, where that would cause conflict, provide a refund. An extra bonus for consumers is that (it seems in most cases) they will be given MP3s, a non-DRMed format which does not require those users to be bound to Rhapsody's service or authentication server. It's great that Yahoo! learned from Microsoft's (and others’) mistakes, but this is a serious and recurring issue which needs to be resolved. Consumers should know what restrictions have been placed on the content they are buying. Furthermore, provisions should be put into place to break DRM when a company ends service or when the term of the copyright is over. Currently any attempt to break DRM, even for a legitimate purpose, would be illegal under the DMCA.

This exact problem has been highlighted over the past year or so in which many large online retailers of DRM protected music have closed up shop, leaving their customers hanging. Sony, Microsoft, and Virgin all had the same advice to their customers: burn your music collection and re-rip it. This process has to be done before the stores completely close and many music fans will be oblivious to this issue until it is too late and the music they purchased will be lost, forever locked away behind a digital gate. Even for those consumers who act quickly the task of burning and re-ripping an entire music collection is daunting in terms of time commitment and the number of CD-Rs required. Furthermore, the only way for customers to salvage their music from these services is through the so-called analog hole which content owners have been trying to close. What happens when there is no analog hole and you can't just burn and re-rip content?

Yahoo! acted appropriately in compensating their users, but other media providers have not been so kind. All those consumers who subscribed to now defunct services should be given (legal) ways to circumvent broken DRM or provided with a refund. Perhaps decryption software should be held in escrow by a third party and released when a media service's DRM mechanism breaks. Of course, a big part of the problem is that consumers often aren't aware of what they are getting themselves into when buying crippled products.

As more content gets released and protected under an ever growing cornucopia of data rights management technologies the need for transparency has become pressing. Consumers must be protected from and informed about DRM attached to the products they buy. DRM lessens the value of a product to a consumer by limiting how, when and where it can be used. There is no benefit to consumers from having DRM on their media. The government needs to step in and force media distributors to explicitly state what limitations there are on their products, in accessible language. This will protect consumers from buying products which are too crippled to be of use to them while simultaneously forcing companies to compete not just on content and price, but also on the degree of freedom which they provide to their customers.

Currently there is little incentive for a media company to be honest with its consumers about the limitations on the media they purchase, since most customers have no idea what DRM is. Now, when something doesn't work or isn't compatible due to DRM most people shrug their shoulders and assume it’s "not compatible" or "just doesn't work." People will be a lot more peeved when they know that the incompatibility is a feature, not a bug.

Of course media companies would rather you didn't know or ask about DRM. They would prefer that each time you want to watch your favorite movie on a different format or device you paid for the content again. Copyright is supposed to promote the creation of new content, not the repackaging of the old. Of course, this is all old news to techies, geeks and industry folks -- but we are a small subset of the general population, and until everyone else knows nothing will be done. The only way to inform people thoroughly will be at the point of sale. Once consumers are told what limitations DRM places on their purchases they'll make informed decisions. Once you arm consumers with good information the market can decide how much DRM is acceptable, until then we're all at the mercy of the studios.

Normally I am against regulation, but DRM is a new technology which can be harmful to consumers and should be restricted. Unfortunately it looks like we as a country might be heading towards mandating DRM instead of restricting it.

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