Is DRM bad?

First let me point you to a very thoughtful essay by Cory Doctorow on the evils of DRM. (It’s called “Microsoft Research DRM talk”; in case the link is broken, you can probably find it elsewhere.)

When copyfighters hear about DRM, they are supposed to start foaming at the mouth, as a sort of pavlovian reaction to the evils of Big Copyright. At least, I started to foam at the mouth whenever I heard the word DRM.

Then, I was asked to join an effort to protest DRM with the European Commission, and to help write a piece from the point of view of Project Gutenberg on DRM. Perhaps if I had remembered Cory’s talk, I would have had enough amunition to crank out a good text. Problem is, I had forgotten all about it, and had to come up with my own arguments.

What I found out is that I do not have any real arguments against DRM. Sure, it will enable others to write their own private copyright laws, but nobody is forced to buy their works in the first place. As a matter of fact, works that aren’t encumbered by DRM are likely to do better in the market, because they are more usable. Would you buy a car that refuses to drive into certain streets? Would you buy bread that you are only permitted to eat between 12 and 14 o’clock?

But the thing that struck me the most, is that DRM is both the result of what we asked of Big Copyright, and the result of what we presented as the right way.

What we asked of Big Copyright: that they take technological instead of legal measures to lock up their content. Hence, DRM.

What we showed Big Copyright as the Right Way: that if an application has sufficient non-evil purposes (cp. the Betamax case), that application by itself cannot be deemed evil. Hence, DRM.

(And so the truly evil thing is laws that prevent one from breaking or circumventing DRM locks. Laws that make that illegal should be struck down as soon as possible.)

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