The frightening world of DRM

Digital Rights Restrictions Management (DRM) is something you'll be hearing about increasingly often, if you're not already hearing it on a daily basis. DRM is what puts the control back into digitally-based content. Hollywood scared of DVDs being copied onto the net? Recording industry worried about every album being digitized and passed around freely? E-book publishers wanting to make sure only paying customers view paid content? Don't worry, DRM is being shoehorned into every media format and every nook and cranny of popular operating systems, so in the future there will be no such thing as free music or software and many, many people will have the potential to be arrested and convicted for wrongdoing.

I understand that something has always needed to be done by Hollywood about piracy, but I believe everyone would be a lot happier if Hollywood simply left things as is while providing ways of making payments. Instead of viewing everyone as criminals, treat them as customers. People will pay, if given the chance (every scheme thus far is either overpriced or requires the use of proprietary players with DRM, or both). Think Napster in its heyday still operating today, but paying a blanket monthly fee or paying by the downloaded byte. Music fans are happy that they continue to get the music they want, now, and publishers have the means to get compensated. But things aren't headed that way.

My biggest problem with DRM and the way Hollywood has historically dealt with file trading is that everyone is assumed guilty of wrongdoing up front. I found some screenshots I took a couple months ago that show Microsoft's DRM that is included with their Windows Media Player. I thought I'd lost the files but finally found them so I'm posting them today.

Here's the situation: I was jumping from link to link, blog to blog, one day and stumbled upon some image-based meme. Someone pointed to a server in Norway or Sweden (I forget, though I do recall an excess of umlauts in the file names). The server was someone's junk folder, an indexed directory containing all sorts of files. After looking at the images someone pointed to, I noticed what looked like a song file in windows media format. I downloaded it, thinking "hey, I wonder what scandinavian music sounds like these days."

When I tried to play the downloaded file, Internet Explorer popped up looking like this. Lots of scary legal language about how invoking a file I found on a website was breaking some form of licensing. For academic reasons, I wanted to see what happens when you choose either cancel or "migrate license." After hitting the migrate license button, I got this screen, and the file played fine. I don't remember it being very good, and I killed it and deleted the file after getting a 30 second listen.

What's my point in explaining all this?

I wanted to show you a glimpse of the future. Whatever replaces Windows XP will be forever married to this type of technology. Sure, open file formats like ogg vorbis or mp3 will stick around, but Microsoft, movie studios, and the record industry will push Windows Media Player and Liquid Media formats as hard as they can, releasing their works only in formats with DRM baked in. Making and playing legitimate versions of your CDs will require jumping through multiple hoops to prove you own what you say you own, as the default assumption is that you are stealing. Sharing with a friend will turn you both into criminals.

I don't know how DRM will make any more money for content publishers, if I assume that's their reason for changing technology on users. I definitely see it annoying legitimate users as well as the illegitimate ones, and at this point I have to wonder how customers will react. The RIAA and MPAA have been pretty hostile to users over the past few years, suing company after company into oblivion, shutting down campus and corporate networks based on the actions of a minority of users, and putting people in jail, and I can't see the near-future DRM implementations helping matters any.

If the point of DRM isn't to make more money for publishers, why are they going through with it, potentially souring relationships with their core customers?