DRM threatens fringe copyright consumers

The evils of DRM have been documented elsewhere, but so far I have disagreed: the market will decide whether DRM is valuable or not.

Politicians routinely overestimate the power the consumer has when negotiating with Big Copyright, and the laws that are meant to make cracking DRM illegal are far over-reaching; but these are not problems inherent to DRM itself, and must be attacked on their own.

There may however be a far more severe problem with DRM that does require direct intervention: readers with unorthodox usage patterns and readers with unorthodox tastes are left in the cold. Of course, this also happens outside of DRM: publishers are not obliged to carry works that don’t sell, nor are they obliged to publish works in unusual formats. However, DRM exacerbates this problem.

Teleread points out that libraries suffer DRM too. I can imagine that for libraries things are worse: they have usage patterns that may not stroke with what the DRM allows. A book being read by more than four persons? A book being read more than twice a year? Surely, the lock would conclude, this must by piracy?

Lawrence Lessig points to another part of the problem (and perhaps a more complex one): the way we choose to “protect” works, helps determine the sort of works we choose to create. I say “more complex”, because this could work both ways. On the one hand, getting a good contract might require locking up your work in DRM. This means less opportunity for your work to get remixed and integrated in all of culture, and readers may even vote with their wallets and not buy your work. Depending on the contract this may be good or bad for the author: however, it is always bad for the work.

And on the other hand, authors may choose not to write the sort of works that publishers won’t buy because they are hard to “protect”.

I won’t spill tears over types of work getting extinct. If copyright were abolished today (and I am not sure that would be a bad idea), some works–Hollywood blockbusters are often named as an example–will certainly vanish. But other works will flourish in their place. Makers of collage art would no longer have to contemplate a carreer change.

The thing is, if we make a choice to eradicate certain types of art, it should be a conscious choice. I doubt though that the law-makers who have “protected” DRM so far have given this much thought.

(I use quote marks for “protect”, because I believe that copyright and digital locks do the opposite for works; once locked up in a technological or legal device, the chance of copying is limited, and therefore the chances of dissemination and ultimately survival of a work are limited.)

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