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Last Updated: Friday, 17 March 2006, 14:54 GMT
How to right the copyright wrongs
Protecting rights may be acceptable, replacing copyright can never be, says regular commentator Bill Thompson.

Steve Jobs, AP
Apple's iTunes recently recorded its billionth song sale
Earlier this week, the Westminster eForum held a discussion on digital rights management at which Derek Wyatt MP made some interesting proposals about getting the British Library to lead the debate on how copy protection and rights management should be regulated and managed.

Mr Wyatt is also chair of the All Party Internet Group. It will soon be publishing its own report on DRM, and it should make interesting reading.

I was one of the panelists asked to discuss the practicalities of DRM, but since I don't think that the encryption mechanisms which underpin rights management systems can ever be made effective or acceptable, what I said didn't go down too well.

The problem is that digital rights management relies on locking content away, and as long as we have general purpose computers capable of running whatever code someone cares to write then there will always be ways around those content locks.

Wasted work

That might change if we get "trusted" computers which will only run approved programs, but even then nobody is going to come round and collect today's PCs from our homes, so there are going to be enough open systems around to cause problems for any DRM systems out there.

As a result, anyone working with DRM technologies or considering using them to protect their copyrights is wasting their time, spending money and effort in a futile technological quest.

Bill Thompson
Current attempts to use technology to enforce restrictions on use, restrictions that often go beyond those copyright law would demand, are unacceptable
Just this week, Rupert Murdoch, speaking to the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers, said: "A new generation of media consumers has risen demanding content delivered when they want it, how they want it and very much as they want it".

DRM could be used to make that happen, by letting customers share music freely, encouraging experimentation and providing new ways to track usage and pay artists. But today's digital rights management systems are not being used to promote a more open market in electronic content and are almost entirely concerned with enforcing restrictions on use.

Music bought from the iTunes Music Store comes with restrictive DRM wrappers which limit how I can listen to it. Programmes bought from Google Video require me to tell Google every time I watch. And, until recently, music discs from Sony in the US came with software that opened up customers' computers to attack in the name of better content protection.

This is not about enhancing the customer experience but locking down content. It is about ensuring that the "new generation of media consumers" Murdoch is referring to do not get the content they want, how they want it or when they want it.

The more technologically competent are perfectly able to strip off these protections. Channel 4 made its new sitcom The IT Crowd available to download in a restricted format, but it took only hours for unencumbered versions to be made available.

And anyone who doesn't like the FairPlay DRM that comes with songs bought from iTunes Music Store can go the Russian-based allofmp3.com and get the same music as plain MP3s. They may be of dodgy legality, but they are cheaper and allow free use.

Copyright respect

Most discussions, including the one that took place this week, are based on an assumption that it is possible to lock content away. But it's silly to believe that any encryption system which can only work when the decryption keys are placed in the hands of millions of consumers can be made effective.

Yet, there seems to be a belief that rigorous enforcement of technological restrictions, backed up by the ruthless application of draconian laws that allow the replacement of copyright with contract law and criminalise activities which used to be considered legal - or acceptable even when not clearly legal - will enhance the market, keep customers coming back for more and ensure the future success of the "content industries".

Somehow, I doubt that this will be the outcome.

Chip fabrication plant, Intel
You can book a lot of studio time for the cost of a chip plant
Perhaps the technology industry will tire of the constant whinging that comes from the music and movie and publishing industries and decide instead to build fully functional systems that do not accept the arbitrary limitations put on them by a content industry that fears for its own future.

As Jon Stokes of Ars Technica has pointed out, you can make a lot of movies for the $5bn it costs to make a single chip fabrication facility. You can also, he might have added, pay a lot of musicians to spend time in a studio, and commission a lot of books.

My opposition to DRM is not an opposition to copyright, or a claim that copyright is dead. But current attempts to use technology to enforce restrictions on use, restrictions that often go beyond those copyright law would demand, are unacceptable.

My daughter is fifteen and cares about copyright. She knows that I rely on it in order to get paid for what I write. But she does not care for copy protection when it stands in her way, and will happily rid DVDs or strip DRM from downloaded music in order to use material flexibly - and fairly.

She buys CDs and DVDs and books, and respects copyright for what it is, a limited monopoly on certain forms of exploitation and use. She does not believe that it is an absolute property right, and she knows perfectly well that ripping a CD is not theft in the way that stealing a disc from a shop is.

The music, movie and publishing industries do not deserve to survive if their only way to remain viable is to undermine copyright law and replace it with restrictive contracts backed by harsh penalties for breaking the inevitably flawed DRM they wrap around their products. Others will take their place, and I cannot see that this is a bad thing.

The content industries have a choice. They can suffer a painful restructuring as the full force of the move to digital unmakes all their plans and invalidates their business models; or they can suffer the same painful restructuring with a far smaller chance of success by alienating their one-time customers as they try to shore up their position with restrictive rights management.


Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital



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