The below article was originally written by me for StandUp Magazine in 2007. StandUp was a great, progressive mag run on UGA’s campus and funded by Campus Progress. It’s great to look back and see how dumb/wrong I was.
Digital rights management, or DRM, is software employed by many copyright owners to protect their content from being pirated. Nearly all of Americans come in to contact with DRM on a daily basis. Enjoying music bought from Apple requires the use of DRM. Even laughing at Garden State on DVD requires the use of DRM. So, DRM is good … right? Hardly a person exists who legitimately supports piracy; however, most DRM is extremely restrictive and takes away from what consumers can do with legally acquired content under their rights of “fair use.”
“Fair-use” was created in the 1841 case of Folsom v. Marsh and this judicial precedent was made law in the 1976 Copyright Act. Most importantly, “fair use” is a right born of the First Amendment. This right allows for parody, copying for educational purposes, rights for the press and various other personal use rights. It is important when looking at DRM, however, to inspect the right of personal copying. Consumers are allowed to duplicate a work for personal use to maintain the posterity of the original. For example, a dorm room can be a dangerous place for your DVDs. roommates may not caress the Scrubs season one DVDs the way they deserve. Creating a backup copy of your DVDs is useful for preventing such misuse from permanently damaging your media. Sadly, DRM is lurking on their copy of the Scrubs DVDs keeps them from creating such a copy.
So, consumers who buy a product are legally kept from enforcing a right guaranteed to them since the nineteenth century? Yes. Record companies and production studios use DRM to restrict the rights of consumers in hopes of curtailing piracy. Said DRM may actually be driving increasingly people to piracy rather than away from piracy because stolen copies of music and movies are, by their nature, DRM free. Yes, tech-savy citizens across the country are avoiding legal digital stores because of restrictive DRM.
Fortunately, DRM is easily broken. Most copy-protection is cracked within weeks of its own release. Yet, a law passed in 1998 called the Digital Millennial Copy Right Act (DMCA) makes it illegal to circumvent said DRM. The DMCA also (allegedly) makes it illegal to tell people how to circumvent DRM. On top of this, it is illegal to tell people where people tell people how to break DRM.
Recently, many organizations have made progress in freeing music from its DRM infused shackles. Steve Jobs, head of Apple, Inc., posted and open letter on apple.com calling for the downfall of DRM within iTunes. Soon, EMI licensed its music to Apple for DRM free sales. EMI saw huge jumps in sales with albums like Dark-side of the Moon increasing sales by 300%. Recently, Universal has been making deals with other stores to sell its music sans DRM. Most importantly, eMusic is the second largest digital distributor of music. They have no DRM on any of their offered tracks and, for the most part, have no major artists available for download in their store. eMusic is only one of many ways to get music without DRM. There are even places to get music, and video for that matter, without having traditional copyright involved at all.
Students concerned with the growing rights of corporations and their own shrinking rights may want to try Creative Commons content. Creative Commons is not for profit organization that allows for artists of all kinds to fore go traditional copyright in favor of a more lax stance on how people may use their content. Licenses range from a license which allows for free noncommercial redistribution or work, to a licensee that allows for anyone to do anything with the work as long as they attribute the original creator.
Even more free than Creative Commons work is work created before Mickey Mouse. Why Mickey Mouse? Because, for some reason, just as the copyright negation date for Mickey Mouse is seen on the horizon, congress seems to conveniently extend the limit for how long a work can be copyrighted before it enters the public domain. Such public domain work, like old news reels, is freely available at www.archive.org.
Avoiding DRM is a paramount concern if people fear “accidentally” breaking modern copyright laws. Yet, avoiding modern copyright or changing the modern laws surrounding copyright may be the only real solutions to the problem of DRM and the priggish destruction of “fair use.”
Activism against the DMCA is seen all over the internet; but, rarely is such a geeky topic even muttered on national television or, god forbid, a national candidate’s official platform. To get involved you could write your local members of Congress urging them to repeal the DMCA. Yet, the most important thing to do is to consume as little DRM infected media as possible.
Spotlight on Creative Commons Work
Here are some sites that publish their work under a Creative Commons license and without DRM. Go there and find tons of professionally produced work.
Librivox provides audio books of public domain work. Audio books ranging from Heart of Darkness to Macbeth are free of charge and Librivox encourages listeners to record their own versions of books that are not available. http://www.librivox.org
Freshtopia is a video show about vegetarian recipes; as well as general tips on protecting the environment. Charismatic Tanja Andrews hosts this amazingly informative romp through all things green and healthy. http://www.freshtopia.net
BoingBoing describes itself as a “directory of wonderful things.” From a vintage portrait of “a pig faced lady” to the latest news on a super-powerful robotic arm, if it’s interesting, it’s all on BoingBoing. http://www.boingboing.net
Jonathan Coulton, a musician based out of the San Francisco area, accompanied John Hodgman on his recent book tour. Coulton also offers several albums for download on his website; and, once held an event where he published a new song every week. All of Coulton’s songs are available DRM-free and under a creative commons license. http://www.jonathancoulton.com
Magna Tunes is a record label based completely on the internet. Musicians upload their songs and offer them for sale. All songs on Magna Tunes are Creative Commons and are also DRM-free. Additionally, Magna Tunes uses a unique model, letting buyers listen to low quality versions of songs before buying the album for whatever price the consumer feels the album is worth. http://www.magnatunes.com
- Why DRM Won’t Be Abandoned Soon | Dear Author, by Jane Litte (teleread.com)
- DRM: The Digital Rights Management Scam (chazzwrites.wordpress.com)