Look what they’ve done to my song, ma

[With thanks to Ms Safka, and to Malcolm for alerting me to this story via his post here.]

[An aside: Would you believe Melanie turned 60 earlier this week? Happy belated birthday.]

In a HotNews post earlier today, Steve Jobs opened up (pun intended) with his views on DRM. Well worth a read. For me, the most telling quote was this:

Why would the big four music companies agree to let Apple and others distribute their music without using DRM systems to protect it? The simplest answer is because DRMs haven’t worked, and may never work, to halt music piracy. Though the big four music companies require that all their music sold online be protected with DRMs, these same music companies continue to sell billions of CDs a year which contain completely unprotected music. That’s right! No DRM system was ever developed for the CD, so all the music distributed on CDs can be easily uploaded to the Internet, then (illegally) downloaded and played on any computer or player.

I am aware that there have been attempts to develop DRM systems for CDs, as discussed here. But they were (thankfully!) catastrophic failures.

This whole DRM thing, when put in the context of what Steve says, now reminds me of something else tangentially Apple-related.
Soon after iPods came out, we had this flurry of activity from some information security professionals saying things like “iPods should be banned from trading floors”. My natural counter at the time was “OK, provided we check every person in and out of the building, look into their briefcases or whatever passed for briefcases, scan and analyse their cellphones and PDAs, and so on.”

I likened it then to being asked to shut the attic window while the front door was not just wide open but barn-sized. I would not ban the iPods unless they “shut the barn door”.

And I guess that’s the way DRM now feels in the context of music. Shutting attic windows while barn doors  flap forlornly open.
Critics of Jobs may argue that CD sales are eroding fast and being replaced by digital downloads, and that stopping the illegal reproduction of digital tracks was therefore imperative. My answer?  No cigar. Not even close.

The damage done by poorly implemented DRM is damage that is being done to all and sundry. Damage that affects everyday people carrying out everyday activities. Damage that affects business and leisure, creativity and pleasure. Damage that extends way beyond music. Legitimate software doesn’t run. Legitimate subscribers can’t get access to digital things they’ve paid for. There are too many examples for me to continue to cite them here.

It’s been no secret that the drive for DRM has come from “content owners”. Even Bill Gates, someone who doesn’t automatically conjure up images of being the Godfather of Open, said so here a couple of months ago.

Take a look at Steve’s penultimate paragraph:

If anything, the technical expertise and overhead required to create, operate and update a DRM system has limited the number of participants selling DRM protected music. If such requirements were removed, the music industry might experience an influx of new companies willing to invest in innovative new stores and players. This can only be seen as a positive by the music companies.

It’s a classic Because Effect situation. We have numerous examples of publishers saying they’ve sold more books once they opened up to Google Search or Amazon Look Inside This Book or similar; numerous examples of musicians and bands being successful selling DRM-free downloads; I could go on but won’t.

The whole concept of an e-book failed, as far as I am concerned, for three reasons:

  • The hardware was too heavy.
  • The process was too unwieldy.
  • Reading a book was no longer a pleasure.

We appear to live in very strange times. Times when people in the hardware, software, media and entertainment industries spend enormous sums of money on making their products and services more “user-friendly”, more user-centred, simpler to use, more convenient. They know all the buzzphrases, so do their consultants. And vast sums get spent.

And then what do they do? They put poorly thought out DRM all over the place. Go figure.

Folks, this is not sustainable. We need new ways of paying for creative value. So go read Terry Fisher, go watch Larry Lessig, go surf Cory Doctorow, go pore over Rishab Aiyer Ghosh, go study the opensource movement. Go write to your local DJ. Go burn a disk.
Go do something.

Because the walls are coming down. They’re coming down.

Let me know what you think

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