How does DRM hurt me, a casual user of computer-based media?

Microsoft announced that they will no longer support former MSN Music customers who want to play their DRM disabled music on new computers. For Microsoft, apparently it’s digital restrictions management (DRM) or nothing.

Jennifer Granick of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital civil liberties organization based in San Francisco, wrote about how Microsoft’s announcement is right in line with their end-user license agreement or EULA.

When active, MSN Music’s webpage touted that customers could “choose their device and know its going to work”.

Windows DRM 'Plays for Sure': Choose your music.  Choose your device.  Know it's going to work.

But when customers went to purchase songs, they were shown legalese that stated the download service and the content provided were sold without warrantee. In other words, Microsoft doesn’t promise you that the service or the music will work, or that you will always have access to music you bought. The flashy advertising promised your music, your way, but the fine print said, our way or the highway.

Granick explains how Microsoft, and other publishers, use licensing terms that leave customers vulnerable to discontinued service for whatever reason the publisher deems necessary.

Has this happened before? What’s going on with DRM? What are the dangers to users?

Major League Baseball

Major League Baseball recently did something similar with their DRMed copies of baseball games. Baseball fans bought into a service which would let them see recorded games online. The recordings were encumbered with digital restrictions management so they’d only play with a specific proprietary player program MLB distributed. Some time later, the DRM stopped working (it hardly matters why). This meant that customers were left with no way to see the recordings they had paid to be able to see. Many other fans had been left with no pro-rated refund and no independent means to replace this service (say, by being given a keycode that would unencumber the recordings they had already paid for and let them see those games).

MLB’s chosen DRM was thorough enough to stymie fans who had recorded the games to their own media. Red Sox fan Allan Wood blogged about his experience. In 2003 Wood downloaded recordings at $3.95/game and burned them to CD-R. When he went to watch one of the games, he was told he needed a license; the DRM provider was unreachable so the MLB system didn’t know if he was authorized to view this recording. The website he was directed to login to didn’t exist, so he was left with no way to watch what he had paid to see and MLB wasn’t going to issue a refund. Wood unwittingly treated a corporation like a charity, contributing $280.45 to MLB.

MLB’s spokesperson told Ars Technica that MLB has “provided detailed communications to the affected customers” and that “It was an inelegant transition period and we didn’t anticipate the problems it would cause.”. Ars Technica reports that “With the exception of postseason footage, customers will be able to redownload all of the now-unwatchable videos. Postseason content will be made available at an unspecified later date, according to the spokesperson.”.


Google did the same thing with its video store telling customers that after 15 August 2007 they would “no longer be able to view your purchased or rented videos”. Google later offered refunds to the adversely affected customers.

Electronic Arts

Electronic Arts skillfully convinced the public to accept DRM in their proprietary video game called “Spore”. Spore uses DRM ostensibly to determine if the player is running an authorized copy of the game. But since the program is proprietary, we have no real idea what the game program does when it runs. Just before the game was released EA tested the reactions from their potential customers by announcing that their DRM would check for proper authorization every 10 days. Game players widely rejected this proposed approach, but one point seems to have escaped the public debate: EA had their foot in the door. Rarely did you see an objection to the existence of DRM. Instead the debate centered around whether 10 day checks were too frequent, too onerous on the player. EA was reported to have reprogrammed the game to only check the DRM when the software was updated. Again, players confirmed EA’s public relations victory here, patting themselves on the back for convincing EA that 10 days was too frequent instead of questioning the validity of DRM at all. As a distraction measure, EA was reported to have been dissuaded from 10 day DRM checks by players in the military who claimed that they couldn’t access the Internet every 10 days, so they’d be unable to comply with that DRM scheme and thus unable to play the game. The follow-up discussion shifted further away from questioning the validity of DRM as participants in forums such as Slashdot asked why soldiers are playing video games at all. The ethics of proprietary software and DRM were effectively outside the allowable limits of debate. A user’s software freedom—the freedom to inspect, share, modify, and run the program whenever they wish—concepts which, when consistently practiced, effectively challenge DRM, is simply not brought up.

Lessons for everyone

But for those who examine the system, the forest, rather than the trees of a particular example here or there clearly see the most important themes:

  • With DRM, you are not in control. The DRM provider controls your media after the sale and, therefore, they can change the terms of the sale at any time (including not letting you see what you thought they sold you). The future will be determined by what you value; do you value being told under what circumstances you may enjoy some copyrighted work? Or do you value freedom to determine this for yourself? This choice should inform how you think about these examples and how you react.
  • The freedom of older media is being replaced with newer lock-in, locked-up media. Paper books, for example, don’t dictate where or when you can read them. Other circumstances may determine that, but the book and its publisher have already had their say. eBooks are different; the publisher can determine ad-hoc when you’re allowed to read any particular work. All the information the eBook reader can gather (including physical location, network location, time of day, and user ID) can used to curtail when you can read the eBook. It’s not hard to implement such controls so they continue to control you offline as well.
  • Contrary to what so many in the progressive Left believe, one cannot explain away all of this behavior in terms of avarice. MLB didn’t stand to make more money by failing to negotiate a means to see the recordings without interruption. MLB opened a lot of people’s eyes to the power of DRM, earned a bad reputation along the way, and now serves as a warning not only to never do business with MLB but to avoid all DRM you can’t crack.
  • All too often the price one pays for DRM-riddled works is so low people don’t think to sue. This leaves publishers with little to compel them to behave better. It’s unlikely these stories and critical examination of the lessons learned will reach the mainstream media, so publishers don’t have to fear many people knowing about any publisher’s “inelegant transitions”. More powerful publishers can afford to simply drop customers leaving them with unplayable files they might not be able to legally crack.

People who make their own unencumbered recordings and share them (even illicitly) have no problem playing back any of their recordings at any time, on any device, anywhere they want, using any player program they wish (including free software like VideoLAN Client), even offline.

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