You always lose with DRM

James Boyle, law professor and author of “The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind“, recently wrote about his mixed feelings concerning the release of his book for the Amazon Kindle, a portable proprietary electronic device for reading texts.

His points concerning DRM (which I prefer to call “digital restrictions management” because that acronym expansion clearly states what DRM is all about for the user) and the subsequent posts thereafter are interesting reading and I recommend reading them. I’d like to put a finer point on the issues that compel me to arrive at exactly the opposite conclusion: DRM is always dangerous for the reader, the tradeoffs are uniformly disadvantageous, and DRM should be avoided.

  • Anything you want to do with an e-book happens because the publisher allows it—sharing, copying passages, even reading all happen because the publisher allows it not because you paid for the privilege of reading the book. In the case of the Major League Baseball digital restrictions management (DRM), subscribers had already paid for access to the game recordings and had their access taken away from them. Warning or not, the only reason you get to do anything with DRM-encumbered media is because the DRM controller allows you to do that. Publishers, who often control the DRM, like this arrangement and this is the major reason why they pursue devices like the Amazon Kindle at all.
  • The Digital Millennium Copyright Act prohibits useful backups of media you can’t crack—Boyle points out in a follow-up response that the DMCA would probably prohibit reverse-engineering the Kindle book files even if Amazon was out of business and all you wanted to do was preserve your investment in Kindle files so you could continue to read the e-books you paid for. This should be a showstopper for anyone considering DRM-encumbered media of any kind. If you can’t make useful backups (media you can read anywhere at any time) then you are trapped to live by the publisher’s rules.
  • DRM limitations can be imposed on you for any reason—if the device you use to read/play DRM-encumbered media has a communication device on it (a wireless Internet radio, a GPS unit, a Bluetooth radio for short-distance communication) the device can be tracked. Tracking information could be a means of restricting access to the media: this book can only be read inside of these global coordinates, or a movie that can only be played when the player is in the vicinity of a particular Bluetooth device, for instance. Even a clock can be used to restrict: the book can only be read during certain times. The point is that unlike traditional media where you have full control when and where you can enjoy the media, DRM means you don’t have that control. The particular restrictions for DRM-encumbered media can vary as per the whim of the publisher, so there need not be any consistency or system to the restrictions. Only the regularity the publisher chooses by its technical choices.
  • DRM means those rules can change at any time—DRM means that the publisher can set the terms of control. If your media is played/viewed with a device that can be updated (such as most computers can), the DRM can behave differently any time the publisher chooses. If the publisher wants to give or take features, there’s nothing you can do to stop the change except not getting the DRM-encumbered media in the first place. For instance, Apple’s iTunes program has been updated many times and some of the updates were downgrades in functionality: in 2005 the number of times you can burn a playlist to a disc was reduced from 10 to 7. You can work around this particular restriction but the point is should you have to? What if you can’t work around a DRM limitation? Publishers can even condition use of new media on your acceptance of the new software which restricts you in new ways. No doubt, publishers would do this as an enticement to get reluctant users to take on new limitations.

Ostensibly publishers would have you lose your fair use rights, forgo treating friends like friends by loaning them your stuff, in exchange for a little technological convenience like being able to read an electronic screen in direct sunlight. A portable connection to the Internet using a clear screen is convenient and valuable, but it’s not worth trading away your rights.