When better is worse: a comment on DRM

I wrote a post for the Day Against DRM for Defective by Design. You can read it there (and should read others’ essays also!). Republishing here:

Everyone knows how to recognize cartoon villains. They twirl their mustaches as they kick puppies, delivering speeches about world domination for personal gain, and often let their arrogance lead to their undoing. People recognize this kind of evil immediately and rise up in protest, banding together to resist. In the real world, most evils are much harder to see coming: they look reasonable at first, perhaps taking just a little bit from many people to get to some unexpected end. Once the effect is widespread enough that most people notice, you have a systemic problem that’s hard to get rid of. The evil that’s easy to identify is easy to fight. The one that initially looks like something good can betray you, and that’s why when we recognize it, we need to speak out against it.

Digital Restrictions Management used to twirl its mustache and kick puppies, making our devices nearly unusable, and we saw it and tried to drive it out of town. But now it’s changed out of its costume and just wants you to sign a little agreement, really just a formality, nothing you’ll even notice. It seems reasonable enough… until we realize what the fine print was telling us we couldn’t do.

It became harder for everyone to avoid these traps when DRM started to work better. Now, people unknowingly let their own software work against their interest—because most of the time, for most people, everything works pretty well. You can happily use it in approved ways on approved devices and not even notice it is there. (And sometimes user interfaces make it unclear how you would copy anything even if DRM wasn’t there to stop you.) The clunky, broken DRM more common in earlier software was easy to see as something standing between you and your own media. But smooth, well-functioning, nearly-invisible DRM is just tricking you into not noticing, silently ready to betray you as soon as you try to do something “forbidden”.

Maybe you don’t think this is so bad. You didn’t want to do anything illegal in the first place, you say, and if someone didn’t give you the right to copy, you don’t want it. But you don’t have to be a scofflaw to run into the limitations imposed by DRM. You did get the right to copy: the many exceptions to copyright are so important that they’re written into law. DRM takes those exceptions away from you and gives you only what someone else decides you ought to have. It neutralizes your rights to quote, criticize, teach about, and archive.

Try to copy a song to use on a new device, read an ebook via text-to-speech, extract a video clip, and with DRM, you can find yourself thwarted by the devices you thought were your own. It might be a small inconvenience to you—but what about librarians and archivists, teachers, artists and documentarians, journalists, or anyone with different needs, all of whom depend on having media that they truly have control over? Fortunately, DRM doesn’t stop everyone… yet. But even if that remains true, do we want a society where the only people who can stand up for your rights are the ones willing to break anti-circumvention laws?

The software you use, for digital media and everything else, should serve your interests. It shouldn’t spy on you, nanny you, or make choices for you against your wishes. But DRM lets someone else choose what your device does. If you can’t change what it does or even see what it’s doing, it doesn’t respect your freedom; it only respects its owner. And that isn’t you.

If DRM doesn’t respect anyone’s rights, why does it stick around? The market is broken and can’t respond well—because DRM mostly works. When you buy encumbered media, you might only discover its problems long after you’ve made your purchase. As far as the industry is concerned, you’re just another happy customer. When you bought it, you told the market it was what you wanted. When you silently stop buying intentionally broken products, it’s obviously because you’ve discovered “piracy”, and the lost sales might be used to justify even more oppressive restrictions.

You can take action to stop DRM from taking away your freedoms! Defective by Design’s Actions page gives you several options, including cancelling services that depend on it and telling them why, and instead supporting media labeled as DRM-free. And tell others to do the same—those restricting your rights have wised up, and no longer make the mistakes of cartoon villains. We can only stop the damage if we all see it coming together.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

One thought on “When better is worse: a comment on DRM”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *