The big DRM mistake

It just doesn't make sense...


Comment Digital Rights Managements hurts paying customers, destroys Fair Use rights, renders customers' investments worthless, and can always be defeated. Why are consumers and publishers being forced to use DRM?

One of my favorite magazines is The New Yorker. I've been reading it for years, and it never fails to impress me with its vast subject matter, brilliant writing, and the depth, wit, and attention it brings to important matters. When it was announced over a year ago that The Complete New Yorker: Eighty Years of the Nation's Greatest Magazine would be released on eight DVDs, I immediately put in my pre-order. After it arrived, I took out the first DVD and stuck it in my Linux box, expecting that I could start looking at the collected issues.

No dice. The issues were available as DjVu files. No problem; there are DjVu readers for Linux, and it's an open format. Yet none of them worked. It turned out that The New Yorker added DRM to their DjVu files, turning an open format into a closed, proprietary, encrypted format, and forcing consumers to install the special viewer software included on the first DVD. Of course, that software only works on Windows or Mac OS X, so Linux users are out of luck (and no, it doesn't work under WINE ... believe me, I tried).

Even worse, if you do install the software, and then perform a search using the somewhat klunky search tool built in to the proprietary DjVu reader, you'll soon find yourself in DVD-swapping hell as you jump from issue to issue. It is sheer painful tedium, and takes me back to 1985 when I was using the first Macs. Remember the floppy shuffle, as you inserted floppy 1, then floppy 2, then floppy 1, then floppy 2, then floppy 1, then floppy 2, ad infinitum? Now it's the DVD shuffle, 20 years later. That's progress for you! You could try copying the disks onto your hard drive, but the DVDs are encoded with Macrovision's copy protection scheme, so you can't legally do so.

The final indignity is that, although other DjVu readers provide for text selection, The New Yorker has removed that feature from its DjVu reader. You can print, but you can't select or copy. As a teacher of several technology courses at Washington University in St. Louis, this limitation, frankly, completely sucks. Suppose I want my students to read 10 paragraphs from a New Yorker story that I provide on a password-protected web page. Too bad! I want to copy and paste some sentences into a presentation? Nope! A student expresses an interest in a topic, and I want to send her a New Yorker article via email that would help further her education? No can do.

I finally got so frustrated that I decided to break through The New Yorker's limitations and DRM, both to access the content I wanted to use and to prove to myself that it could be done. I opened up the article I wanted to copy on a Mac OS X machine, and printed it to PDF using the Mac's built-in support for that format (on Windows, I could have used the open source PDFCreator). I then opened the PDF in OCR software, selected the regions I wanted to scan for text, performed the scan, corrected the results, and saved my output to a text file. It took a while, but it worked.

Other folks have come up with strategies for getting around the annoyances I mentioned above. It turns out that it's entirely possible to copy all the DVDs to your hard drive and then make one simple change in the SQLite database. The result? The slow-as-a-turtle, multi-DVD-swapping The New Yorker turns into super-duper fast The New Yorker. Ta-da!

My experience with The Complete New Yorker is not unique. DRM is cropping up, it seems, everywhere, and people are discussing ways of getting around it.

More bad DRM examples

TiVo added DRM allowing TV shows to include a flag that prevents users from storing shows for any length of time. As a TiVo owner who has left some movies on my box for years, waiting for just the right day to watch them, this outrages me. Sure, TiVo said it was a "bug," but that sounds fishy to me, and I don't buy it. Remember: timeshifting is legal. (One solution: get the files off of TiVo, strip the DRM, and save 'em to a hard drive. A better solution: MythTV.)

Apple's successful iTunes Music Store, in addition to forcing users to accept a pretty sonically-limited format with a proprietary DRM scheme called "FairPlay" (using Orwellian language to mask what you're doing is double-plus ungood, Apple). FairPlay limits what you can do with the music you buy, leaving Apple in charge of your music, not you. Want to play a song you purchased from iTMS on a device other than an iPod? Uh-uh. Want to load music onto an iPod using something other than iTunes? Silly boy. Even worse, some universities are now making lectures and classes available using iTMS, a slap in the face to the open nature of learning and education. Sure, you can remove FairPlay's DRM, but you're still left with a music file recorded at a pretty crappy level, and converting it to a more open format only makes it sound worse. The iTunes Music Store isn't the only offender, as a report by the Electronic Frontier Foundation made clear. iTunes is just the most popular, by far. (Solution: Music stores that give you real choice, without DRM.)

The British equivalent to the Oscars is the BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) award. Members of BAFTA are sent "screeners", free DVDs of the movies they're supposed to vote on, so they can view the movies and make judgments. In an effort to prevent the release of those screeners to non-BAFTA members, the DVDs are encrypted to only play on special DVD players that were also sent free to BAFTA members. As you can imagine, this is a royal pain in the posterior for many BAFTA members, who have to hook up special hardware just to watch a few films. In a bit of supreme cosmic irony, the screeners for Steven Spielberg's Munich were encoded for Region One (the US and Canada) instead of Region Two (Europe), so BAFTA members couldn't view the movie to vote on it. Oops.

What are the lessons to learn from DRM?

1. DRM hurts paying customers

Customers have paid for the texts/pictures/music/movies they purchased, and they expect to be able to use them as they'd like. You can argue that they're not really buying the content, they're just buying licenses for that content, but that argument, while technically legal, is facile and doesn't take into account how real human beings think. When a normal person buys a song, he considers it his ... after all, he just paid for it!

Intelligent people can disagree about the economic impact of file sharing - it seems pretty clear to me that it actually encourages sales and awareness of movies, music, and other content - but that's not what I'm talking about here. I'm talking about moving pictures and movies between devices, about transferring files between the many computers I own, and about changing formats as I please.

When I realised I couldn't copy text out of The Complete New Yorker, I felt like a sucker - a sucker that had been conned by the same people to whom I willingly gave my money. As a college instructor, I especially thought of the loss to my students, which brings us to the next objection to DRM.


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