Xu: How and why DRM has failed

I download music illegally.

I tried to be legal, to buy my CDs and use the online music stores legally. I want to support the bands whose music I enjoy. But the very thing the music companies use to protect themselves from piracy — Digital Rights Management — pushed me into the murky waters of the black market.

Here’s the scenario: I went onto the iTunes Music Store and clicked “buy” next to a song. The word itself suggests that I’m buying that song. A legal market transaction. A full transfer of ownership from the big boys at Warner Bros. to me. I want to put the song where I want it, play it when I want to, have full freedom and full ownership over my 99-cent property.

But that’s not what actually happens. Thanks to DRM, what I’ve got is essentially a rental. I can only burn it seven times and have it on five computers, and I can only play it with an iPod or through iTunes.

To the casual observer, this seems only annoying, and certainly not deal-breaking. Most Yalies I talked to expressed indifference, saying it has no immediate effect on their online purchases.

But I argue that DRM isn’t just annoying; it’s absurd and dangerous, even. Time is the greatest factor here. How long do you expect your purchase to last? I assume it’s forever, as is the case with every other good on the market. But that’s just not the case. For example, what if I stop using an iPod? Gadgets and trends change rapidly, and in 10 years I could be running around New York with another mp3 player in my pocket. It’s also not unimaginable that I’d be on my sixth computer in 15 years. The moment any of those happen, I lose the song I purchased. At 99 cents a pop, that’s not spare change.

Worse still is the fact that the DRM-driven music is so tied to the seller. If a store shuts down its servers, like Wal-Mart did a few days ago, all of its customers are suddenly left with locked music that cannot be unlocked. Basically, DRM has made it so the music I buy isn’t really mine, but rather some convoluted entitlement to use the music where and when the music company wants me to. It’s not my property.

The music industry defends the use of DRM as an anti-piracy measure, a way to prevent people from uploading the files back onto the Internet and sharing it with others for free. Yet the measure isn’t a complete blanket protection. CDs are all too easy to rip into shareable files. Even the DRM itself isn’t perfect.

Most Yalies interviewed agreed that circumvention is terribly easy.

“It’s easy to get around it,” Charlie Sharzer ’12 said. “You just burn a CD and load it back onto your computer.”

But the fact that DRM forces users to circumvent it seems to defeat its purpose.

It’s clear that the industry is not handling anti-piracy correctly. Rather than building satisfaction with customers, they use DRM to shackle them, which signals a paranoia and a lack of trust and respect for the customers.

The bottom line is that DRM does not work. It has not prevented those who pirate music from pirating it, and it has only annoyed the legitimate customers. That in itself should signal to the music industry that enough is enough. DRM is dead.

Comments

  • Anonymous

    Agreed that DRM is a flawed, unsustainable, and nigh unethical business practice. It's good that this is being recognized in public discourse.

    Ultimately, though, the most effective response is probably to vote with your wallet: refuse to "buy" any DRM-tainted data. For music, try shifting loyalties to a company like amazon, which offers its songs as simple mp3's.

  • Anon

    You aren't getting your music on the "black market." You're stealing it. (But you're not paying someone else for it.)

  • I CANNOT AGREE MORE!

    Personal Experience:

    I have purchased about $150 worth of music from iTunes. One day I log into iTunes and for whatever reason it requires me to activate the music (even though it should already have been activated). However, even though I kept on activating the "locked" music with my account (and it kept on displaying the "music activated" message), I couldn't access my music. iTunes Customer Service took 10 Weeks to determine the bug and fix my access, and I couldn't listen to any of my songs for that length of time.

    Although I already knew DRM was terrible, after that firsthand experience I'm never going to legally download a song and not remove the DRM again. I recommend programs like M4P Converter, which will remove DRM from a computer without the hassel of actually burning a cd (it virtually burns the cd on your computer).

    I'm not "stealing" anything Anon!!! DRM does not keep people from stealing -- individuals who want to steal will use BitTorrent sites. I'm merely opening up access for my own PERSONAL USE.

    People who want to steal will find a way to steal but DRM merely keeps honest people like myself from being able to access their music.