Point: Digital Rights Management stifles music, art

DRM stands for “Digital Rights Management,” but it has as little to do with “rights” as Yale Dining Services has to do with “dining.” What “rights” does DRM manage? The rights of corporations to dictate how and when you use a file — be it a song, a movie or an operating system — that you’ve bought and own. DRM should be made illegal because it is strangling the freedom that has made the digital age the most productive and creative in history.

Opponents of DRM believe that when you buy a song or a movie, you should be able to do whatever you want with it: re-master it, edit it, even (gasp!) send it to a friend. To the entertainment industry, this last idea is scary, indeed downright threatening. How will they make any money? The answer is simple: abolishing DRM will transform the entertainment industry completely — and for the better. As it is, most actual musicians make almost nothing for their work; the profits go straight to the middlemen. Without DRM, artists will sell their music to their fans directly. Music, and not marketing, will define the future.

Market-minded libertarians are apt to point out that although we might not like DRM, some of us choose willingly to buy technologies that employ it. How can DRM be wrong if so many people are willing to pay for iTunes?

The fact is that market systems often produce less-than-optimal results. Any economist can tell you that monopolies extract a higher price than the socially optimal one. If you believe that corporations should employ this kind of thuggery when they can, then chances are that you won’t see any problem with DRM. But if you believe that free markets are good because they (usually) promote human welfare, then DRM — which has the sole goal of restricting consumers — is clearly the kind of socially harmful corporate coercion which should be banned.

Decisions about who can access and reproduce information determine what kind of society we live in. As a nation, we respect copyright laws because they encourage the creation of music, art and literature. DRM does the opposite. It is an instrument of control, not an incentive to produce; it stifles voices instead of amplifying them. When the free market system fails us so egregiously, it’s our right and our duty to fix it.

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