by Mike Shea on 2 April 2007
I remember clearly the day I found out that the Circuit City DIVX monstrosity, a bastardized DVD player that required a phone line to dial in and determine your rights to watch a DVD every time you purchased it, died. It was about four in the morning and I was just about to head out of town but I still managed to write a few words on Liquid Theater about it.
I felt the same way last night when the Wall Street Journal broke the news that Apple and EMI would announce that EMI would begin releasing music on iTunes without DRM. Today the news became official. All of EMI's music would be released on iTunes for $1.30 a track at double the sampling rate and without any DRM.
This is a great victory in the media war but it is only one battle of many.
In order to judge the impact of this news, let's look at exactly why we care about DRM in the first place. Let's start with the things I want from digital music, movies, and TV shows:
I want a high quality copy of the content in question.
I want it interoperable with multiple computers, operating systems, playback software, and portable devices.
I want it standards-based and open so I can play it back on open-source devices and players like a Kubuntu box without having to download proprietary playback codecs.
I want to be able to play it back on any device I choose whenever I choose.
I want to own it. I don't want to pay a licensing fee to listen or watch only as long as I keep paying.
I want to be able to archive it and know that in a very distant future I can still likely play it back even if all of the companies that were involved are out of business.
I want to be able to move it from system to system and device to device without worrying about "authorizing" those systems or devices.
I want it in a ubiquitous format so popular that just about every player can play it back.
I want it for a price I am willing to pay.
DRM prevents most of the criteria above. It locks you into a forced proprietary playback system, it requires authorization every time you move it, and it is not likely to restore from a long-term archive.
The removal of DRM from EMI music means the next time I buy a Rolling Stones album, it will meet the above criteria.
EMI's announcement is only one step in a larger war, however. The following outlines what needs to occur before we can declare "Mission Accomplished":
All of the other big music companies need to likewise release music without DRM. I expect to see this begin throughout the rest of 2007. I expect all of them will support it by the end of 2008. Some hold outs will take nearly a year before realizing that this is a better business model.
DRM needs to be removed from audio books. Right now Audible audio books also contain DRM but unlike music files, you cannot burn them to CD and rip them back. The only way to remove DRM from an Audible book is to hack it or record it again in analog. This is going to happen piecemeal. I am already seeing newly published books with free online audio versions.
DRM needs to be removed from TV shows. Like audio CDs, TV shows are sent over the air and through cable without encryption. I can record them on Tivo or with any one of dozens of video recorders. There is no reason to enforce DRM on TV shows. Right now, in order to watch Battlestar Galactica, I had to support iTunes. I couldn't play back iTunes BSG shows on my Xbox 360. I am not sure when to expect this.
DRM needs to be removed from digital movies. Until DRM is removed, DVD will continue to be the preferred method for movies at home. They are higher quality, more ubiquitous, play back on the most devices, already come in an archival format, cheap, and include the more features than any digital version. There are a lot of big problems with movies over the internet besides DRM but DRM doesn't help. Like TV shows, I can't say when this will be solved.
Youtube needs to come out victorious, one way or another, in the lawsuit between YouTube and Viacom. Viacom needs to learn that digital distribution of its television shows helps the business. It needs to learn that customers prefer this method of distribution and will gravitate towards it. Viacom, and the entire media mafia, needs to learn that embracing new technology and creating better products works better than suing everyone and corrupting our legal system.
Congress needs to amend or repeal the DMCA. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act makes most consumers of digital content lawbreakers by every day action. If you take a DVD and move it to your iPod, you are breaking the law. Every day convenience should not result in a crime. The DMCA needs to be fixed or removed before total victory in the media war can be reached.
The last hill in the media war is a complete reformation of copyright law. Copyright law is a mess right now. Material that was intended by its original author for wide distribution is held close by the greedy hands of heirs who care nothing for the actual intent of the material. All of our creative works for the past eighty years is crushed under laws written by a very small group of people with very small goals to protect a tiny fraction of the total work. Disney alone modified the entire world's copyright laws in order to protect Mickey Mouse. That needs to be broken before artistic freedom is truely met.
In the mean time, I'll still be watching proprietary shows on proprietary hardware while most of the rest of the world breaks the law every day simply to have what they want: a good product.