Why is DRM a social problem?

Ian Forrester recently wrote on his blog that describing DRM as a “social problem” is “an interesting choice of words”, so I thought I’d explain that in depth.

People often think DRM is technical problem, because DRM vendors simply lie about how their technology is “unbreakable” and they accept the idea that it will be impossible to write new software that can read the media. But the DRM in DVDs was broken by a 15 year old!

Instead, the problems with DRM are social.

One social problem with DRM happens after it becomes widespread: It means artists earn less money. Consider a Canadian study which found that public filesharing and filesharing between friends increases music CD sales. (Also reported here, via Richard Stallman’s blog)

Another social problem with DRM that happens before it becomes widespread is that decision makers don’t value the public’s freedom and think that restricting them is legitimate. If they realised digital restrictions mangagement was an unacceptable way to treat people, we wouldn’t be lumbered with it in the first place.

But even if some decision makers think it is okay, and artists make less money, that wouldn’t create the disaster we have at the moment:

The disastrous social problem of DRM is that it create monopolies on software ideas.

Technical solutions to DRM only goes so far because of the social problem: Laws that forbid the free software from being redistributed, in effect banning it.

Each DRM system is a monopoly, and as such contradicts anti-competition law. Apple has faced a legal battle about this in France, for example. The DRM laws exist because they were lobbied for by large businesses, and are known as the DMCA in the USA and EUCD in the EU.

There are other laws that create monopolies on software ideas, that ban certain kinds of software from being free, as in freedom, by forbidding that software from being distributed: Patent laws.

Software idea patents are like trip wires: each idea in a program or website carries a risk of tripping on a patent, and tripping can be fatal.

They too are unjust laws that serve only very large businesses, and not small ones or the public. In the USA they were created by a court decision. In the EU, despite heavy lobbying from the US government, they do not yet exist. While they exist in the USA they effect everyone indirectly though.

They too can be worked around technically, by figuring out new ways to do a job that do not involve an idea known to be restricted by patents. When the monopolised idea is very specific, this sometimes works well.

But patents on ideas essential to something large, such as popular file formats like H264 and MP3, mean that new ways of doing the same job are ineffective. They involve creating new and incompatible file formats, like Xiph’s Ogg Vorbis and Ogg Theora. It is inevitable that new file formats will initially be unpopular, but that inertia can be overcome, especially through technical superiority.

But new file formats developed to evade software idea patents must overcome extra resistance from the patent holders - a social problem, not a technical one. The patent holders seek to subvert the adoption of the new formats, and this happened this month in the HTML5 drafting process, when the Xiph formats that were set for inclusion in the standard were dropped.

Technical workarounds also don’t exist for “submarine patents.” These are patents held quietly while people come up with the patented ideas independently. The patent holders continue to wait as people come to depend on the ideas. Then the traps are set, and when free software projects fall into them, they simply just stop; they cannot undertake the massive effort to rewrite their programs using other ideas.

These social problems are the biggest obstacle for the free software movement today. They can never be completely solved by technical workarounds - because as workarounds, they treat symptoms instead of causes.

For software idea patents, it seems like there might be a way to solve their cause for good. Software idea patents were introduced by courts, not by lawmakers, and its possible to have a court decision overturned by a higher court. Please visit the “End Software Patents” initiative for details.

But for DRM, there is no permanent solution in sight. Until a way to challenge DRM laws is found, the cause of DRM is the attitudes of decision-makers in the organizations that make DRM technologies.

Many people understand the harm caused by the monopolization of software ideas through patent law. I hope more people will understand the harm caused by the monopolization of software ideas inherent in DRM as well.

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The Why is DRM a social problem? by David Crossland, except the quotations and unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.


One Response to “Why is DRM a social problem?”

  1. Understanding » Blog Archive » Now the BBC iPlayer has a version without DRM, what next? v2 on December 19th, 2007 12:51

    […] Understanding « Why is DRM a social problem? […]

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