Protecting Consumers from DRM

Consumer rights advocates and media companies have been fighting over digital 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 believed 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, providing compensation for those users who have a conflict with this solution. An extra bonus for consumers is that in most but not all cases they will be given MP3s in 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 and what those restrictions will mean in real life. Furthermore, provisions should be put into place to unlock 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 during which time 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! is acting/appears to be acting 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 should be provided with a refund. Certainly they should not be criminally punished for attempting to access the music they paid for. 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, 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. Media distributors need to explicitly state what limitations there are on their products, in accessible language. If issues of DRM and content control continue to be obfuscated, misunderstood and harmful to consumers the government may need to step in to protect consumers. 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 deliberate 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 that you asked for permission or pay 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.

DRM is a new technology which can be harmful to consumers and may need to be restricted or at least have requirements in place for some level of disclosure, to be provided in an accessible form to consumers. The only way to inform everyone clearly would be to have some sort of labeling on the content visible at/prior to the point of sale. Consumers need to be told what limitations DRM places on their purchases in order to make better 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.

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