Digital Discord

December, 2009

Digital Discord

It was my love of music that brought me to first download mp3’s from other users on Napster. Suddenly all the music I had ever wanted to hear was right in front of me. There were live recordings, limited editions, music I had only heard on my parents’ turntable, and albums I once owned (some stepped on, some stolen). I didn’t care about the audio quality since my speakers were terrible. I was in heaven. I illegally downloaded hundreds of songs, but since then I have spent hundreds of dollars on the albums I discovered. My taste in music is broad, not exactly radio-friendly, and if an artist was recommended to me I’d download a few songs, get a feel for the music. An article once led me to an esoteric group called Dead Can Dance; I eventually bought all eight of their albums. I purchased CD’s from local record stores or online when I could find them; a few times I downloaded an album from iTunes or Yahoo. To me, the mp3’s were a temporary fix or trial version. The purchased music downloads were more temporary than I expected; the song files need authorization to play and some of the companies no longer exist. The songs I stole years ago sound terrible on my new speakers, but at least they play.

Digital Rights Management, or DRM, is any technology that controls access to content such as mp3’s. In the example of iTunes, a label or content owner grants a license to content through Apple. This license and consumer sublicenses, or DRM authorizations, signify a contract with the label. Most DRM technology protects a limited set of rights pertaining only to the content owner (Fox and LaMacchia 61). The public has responded negatively toward DRM; the more limiting DRM becomes, the louder the outcry gets. In 2008, gaming industry giant EA released a game called Spore that shipped with new DRM technology which allowed only three authorizations and installed a second, hidden program called SecuROM. To me, this meant after upgrading my computer twice I wouldn’t be able to play or resell a $50 game, and I rebuild my computer about once a year. The gaming community took their protest to; the review section was bombarded with thousands of bad reviews based solely on the DRM. A class-action law suit was brought against EA concerning the surreptitious installation of SecuROM software. It is difficult to tell who won that particular battle. Spore’s DRM was hacked and the game was uploaded weeks before release date, becoming the most pirated game of 2008. Spore also sold millions of copies, and EA published press releases on their success. It is one of my favorite games, but I bought it after EA made small changes to policy and allowed deauthorizations. Copyright holding corporations should realize that current implementation of DRM deters more honest customers than media pirates. DRM technology makes it easy for consumers to lose rights to legally acquired media, to break the law while within the scope of fair use, and for software using DRM to leave a computer open to security risks.

Last July, I read a short but shocking report on a sci-fi blog concerning and George Orwell’s 1984 which brought me to a New York Times article on the subject. Amazon’s Kindle device allows customers to wirelessly purchase digital copies of books at a reduced price from the print version. Consumer Technology journalist Brad Stone reported that Amazon “angered customers and generated waves of online pique” by removing a digital copy of 1984 from customers Kindles. The digital book was sold through Amazon by a third-party which did not have proper rights to the book. Amazon refunded customers and deleted illegal copies, but has since “acknowledged that the deletions were a bad idea” (Stone, 1). A retailer would never have the right to take back a physical copy of the book under any circumstances, but this continues to happen with digital media.

Fair Use is a major concern with the current state of DRM technologies, Microsoft employees Barbara Fox and Brian LaMacchia state in a technology periodical that “the legal definition of fair use is fuzzy and imprecise” (63). From my understanding, a person should be able to make a copy of a movie or CD for personal use or to transfer to their iPod under fair use, but movie cannot be copied without illegally bypassing the DRM. A few copyright exemptions now exist, such as allowing a media professor to bypass the DRM on a DVD to extract small clips for classroom use. This is a step in the right direction, but I think the problem lies in the DRM technology itself, not just copyright law. Fox and LaMacchia give an overview, “There is no incentive for DRM architects to try to model fair use rights in their systems, as any attempt to do so puts them at risk of contributing to an infringement” (62) I have read that it is difficult to code fair use stipulations in DRM technologies, but even allowing one copy would be an improvement. iTunes software allows a playlist to be copied to a CD seven times; it doesn’t seem unreasonable that DRM on a purchased DVD allow one copy.

Computer privacy and security are important to a range of consumers, some work with sensitive data, some just do online shopping. Some DRM technologies have been shown to leave security holes such as one program included on millions of CDs distributed by Sony. When a of rootkit protected CD was loaded onto a computer, hidden files were installed and programs were run before a user agreement was ever encountered. Virus creators took advantage of the hidden files, attacking consumers with viruses and Trojans. There were 25 million CDs with the rootkit technology produced, so it is no surprise that Sony BMG Music Entertainment had to defend themselves against several class-action lawsuits (Flint, 15). David Flint, writer for the U.K.’s Business Law review says “the evidence against Sony is compelling” especially after it was found out that Sony infringed on copyright. Sony did not attribute the creator of the LAME music encoder included in their rootkit technology as is required by the free software license held by the encoder’s authors. This “further reveals the hypocrisy of Sony’s actions” protecting their copyright while infringing on others, and leaving customers’ computers open to viruses (Flint 18).

Advocates of DRM regularly call it a necessity. A visit to any torrent website shows how prolific pirated media has become. Recording, gaming, E-book, and movie industries regard any copy as having the potential to be pirated, and they’re right. With the worldwide scope of downloads; only one person would have to successfully bypass DRM for it to populate pirate websites. I have read that license granting companies want all digital content to be thought of as tangible by consumers, however, I think the licensors need to treat the content that same way. I discovered how instantly a license can be revoked when music servers were taken offline; Kindle customers found out that they don’t really own the copy of books on their e-reader. I feel that if content owners continue to think of digital media as temporary sale, the mindset of the public won’t change.

So, instead of justifying both illegal downloading and purchasing of games, music, and movies, I am going to question my need for it. I have read so many opinions of whining consumers and company executives, and everyone is starting to sound like petty thieves. Licensors complain of lost revenue from downloads, even after selling millions of copies. Hackers think they’re like Robin Hood, bypassing DRM and sharing it with the world, but the poor have greater needs than video games. I am upset at how consumers are treated and fair use is ignored by content owners, but I haven’t helped any cause by downloading products. If I don’t think a game is worth $20, it shouldn’t be worth my bandwidth to download illegally. It shouldn’t be worth the hard drive space on my computer, let alone the risk of getting caught for pirating. I think DRM technology could be improved upon, offering less of a hassle to consumers, and more protection for companies, but for now I will be satisfied with the media I already own. I don’t really need the latest and greatest game whether it is free or not.


Works Cited

Fox, Barbara L and Brian A. LaMacchia. “Encouraging Recognition of Fair Uses in DRM Systems.” Communications of the ACM Apr 2003: 61-64. EBSCHost. Web. 10 Nov. 2009

Flint, David. “Getting to the Root of the Problem? (Anti-Piracy Software on Compact Discs).” Business Law Review Jan 2006: 15-22. Academic OneFile. Web. 12 Nov. 2009

Stone, Brad. “Amazon Erases Orwell Books From Kindle.” New York Times, 18 Jul 2009. Web. 1 Dec 2009.



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