DRM or Digital Right Management is able to exist because most people either don’t know what it is or don’t truly understand its implications. I thought I’d take a shot at explaining it in as simple terms as possible. Let it be clear that I am anti-DRM and therefore biased—but that never stopped anyone.

What is Digital Rights Management? The somewhat technical—and bound to be either ignored or forgotten by non-techies—definition is: a system of encryption or obfuscation designed to restrict the ability to play or copy digital media unless previously set conditions are met. The key word in that definition is restrict. HBO CTO Bob Zitter recently said that people are more likely to accept DRM if they simply changed its name to something more consumer “friendly”, like Digital Rights Enablement. This is the sort of magic trick where the magician waves his right hand so you’ll be distracted while he palms your twenty with the left—a turd by any other name still smells like s…

Whatever you call it (and we’ll stick to DRM), its only purpose is to limit, which is something we’ll get to in a second. One of the problems with understanding DRM is that we have to grapple with the fact that we are exclusively talking about digital files. You can take a digital file and make a trillion copies of it; every single one of them, including the original, will be perfectly the same. And there is nothing to stop you from doing just that. This terrifies traditional content producers because: 1. they assume that given the chance to steal their content instead of paying for it, all of us will do so and 2. they lose the ability to sell us the same content more than once.

I still haven’t said exactly what DRM is but here it is. DRM’s purpose is to limit:

  1. What device or software you use to play a digital media file. For example, Apple iTunes songs with FairPlay DRM can only be played on your computer with Apple iTunes software or with your Apple iPod. This enables brand lock-in, where you must use a certain company’s products to play files you’ve purchased. This also means that if you wanted to play a file on another mp3 player which isn’t an iPod, you’re out of luck. There are all sorts of workarounds around this, many technically illegal, and most involve some sort of loss of quality.

  2. How long and how many times you play it without checking in. Most DRM systems require that you check in or what they call “reauthorize” with an internet server every so often to make sure you have the right to play a file. Some make you check in every time you play a file, others once a week, and others are more “lenient”—they only make you check in if you change computers or devices.

  3. The ability to change from one file format to another. If you have a song you purchased from Napster in wma (Windows Media Audio) format, you cannot change it into another format, say mp3, so you can play it on another device, like an in-dash mp3 CD player, despite there being tools to easily do so. DRM is being pushed on all types of digital media, including movies and books. Imagine purchasing a movie this month, only to find out that you can’t play it on your new home theater media player which doesn’t support that particular flavor of DRM?

The traditional content producers want you to buy the content again and again. One copy for your computer, another for your portable media player, and yet another for your car stereo or home theater. Perhaps, ultimately, they can charge us every single time we decide to watch or listen or read something they’ve produced—nickel and dime us death.

Digital media cost nearly nothing copy and the online distribution costs are minimal. They pay almost nothing compared to buying a CD or DVD in a store (nevermind that those costs are also minimal). They spend much much less selling content in a digital format yet you pay the same or more and you get less!

Another issue is what happens in the future when the current DRM systems are replaced by others. Will you be left with files, bought and paid for, that are useless? Do we expect the producers to give us new copies or simply tell us we’ll have to buy it again? And yet, will they stop us from removing the DRM (illegal under the DMCA)?

Content producers also have the leverage to force the companies who make DVD players, home theater systems, computers, and phones to lock down those things to prevent you from using them in any way they don’t want you to. This sort of feature limiting would have driven companies out of business in the past. Today a ton of people will buy Apple iPhones despite them being locked in order to prevent you from doing anything that might cut into AT&T’s bottom line, and yet they charge you the full retail price.

Would do business with somebody who treats you like a thief, attempts to provide the least amount of service to you at the highest cost possible, and actively stops you from using the very thing you purchased from them if you step outside their rules?

This post (9/30) is part of 30 Days - Stories and Thoughts, June 21 - July 20, '07 at nickspeaks.com