Volkher Hofmann is boycotting Sony BMG, Blue Note, and EMI. Why? Because he is sick and tired of paying to be disrespected by those labels and their intrusive Digital Rights Management (DRM) schemes. And he’s not alone. The audiophiles and film buffs who spend the most on music and movies are the ones who are most insulted and turned off by DRM.

As media conglomerates push DRM more and more and technology companies that produce computers, DVD, CD, and MP3 players build DRM support into their products consumers are growing more aware of DRM. And the more they know the more they bristle at the restricted playback of legally purchased music and movies, incompatible hardware and software, inability to backup their data, and other hassles. Bought that music on iTunes? Then you had better not want to play it in Windows Media Player. Bought that DVD on your trip to Europe? Then you can’t play it when you get back to the States, but you have a shiny new coaster.

Media producers and distributors argue that highly restrictive DRM is the only way to prevent piracy. And in theory it may be a swell idea, but in practice it is a hassle for the general public. Most people are not tech savvy, they don’t want to keep track of incompatible DRM schemes and deal with media that plays on their Mac but not their PC or on their iPod but not their PSP. It’s just annoying, and then insulting when they discover that they can’t watch their movie in their living room because Sony assumes they are a criminal. DRM is based on the premise that all consumers are criminals and is antithetical to the American sense of justice and fairness.

People ask why web sites that sell music and movies use DRM. Well, they can’t get the popular songs, movies, or TV shows from the studies and record labels unless they use a DRM scheme. Without the popular content they can’t stay in business very long. But there aren’t really any good cross platform DRM schemes that are easy to use, respect fair use rights, and work well. So the distributors have to choose to use Windows Media 10, or Quicktime / AAC, or a home-rolled solution. If they want to offer versions for every popular playback device then they need 4-6 copies of each title and multiple server platforms and licenses to support downloading. The time and expense of doing this is prohibitive to most companies and to cover their costs they have to raise their prices above the market rates. It’s really a lousy situation.

The worst part is that since any DRM scheme available today is inherently easy to circumvent (generally via a simple software trick but at worst via an analog cable to a recording device), it’s really just the everyday, honest consumer that suffers. Pirates and tech-savvy folks, while annoyed by the extra effort, simply work around the protections. In fact, they often take DRM as an insult and challenge and break it just because they can.

What’s the solution? Honestly, there isn’t a good one. If you want to sell movies or music that comes form a major label or studio they will demand the use of DRM that annoys and alienates consumers. If you’re a consumer you either pay to get a crippled copy or get an illegal unrestricted copy. It’s all backwards and upside down, free things should be worse than the version you pay for, but in this case they are worse from a consumer’s perspective. This creates a disincentive for even honest, ethical consumers to pay for their movies and music. Some may boycott it, but many more will simply shrug and get the illegal copy.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has a Consumer’s Guide to DRM that explains some of the different DRM schemes and the problems with them. It also provide a list of places where DRM-free media is available. Visit http://www.eff.org/IP/DRM/ for more information and articles on DRM, copyright, and the impact of restrictive DRM on innovation and consumers. While the EFF is extremely idealistic in their approach, the fact is they are right about DRM. It indiscriminately blocks fair use of media, it stifles innovation, and it encourages, rather than discourages, the average consumer to use pirated, unprotected copies of media.

The people who make movies, TV shows, and music should get paid for their work. They create great things that make our lives richer. The business people that pay for recording studio time, CD and DVD production and the trucks that deliver the media should get paid for their efforts. That’s just fair and right. The problem is when they lose perspective and respect for the customers and their part in the relationship. Entertainment is a luxury and there are always alternatives. It is nobody’s right to make money being an entertainer, it is their privilege. They need to respect and thank the consumers who support them.

It is sad that rather than try to approach their relationship with music and movie lovers as a harmonious one the major labels and studios see their customers as adversaries. That’s not a healthy approach to doing business. Customers and businesses alike need to treat each other with some respect. When it comes to entertainment, to the films that we love and music that is the soundtrack of our lives, to artistic creations that consumers are passionate about the creators and distributors should be able to tap into that passion and make money without DRM.

Perhaps I’m an young idealist but I really believe that if the studios and labels could look at customers as their partners and see the passion consumers have for their products they might see the light and spend the millions they spend fighting piracy though lobbying Congress, paying lawyers, and silly anti-piracy ad campaigns and just build some really great web sites that sell movies and music that people love in the formats they want. In the meantime distributors are stuck selling DRM crippled copies of music and movies and consumers are stuck with movies that play in the living room but not the bedroom and their stereo but not their PC. It’s sad and the whole mess will almost certainly get worse before it gets better.

Kevin Hall
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