There are a couple of contentious topics I tend not to bother debating online because people on both sides of the argument tend to have entrenched positions. The debate on abortion in the U.S. is an example of such a topic. Another one for me is DRM and it's sister topics piracy copyright infringement and file sharing networks.

Shelley Powers doesn't seem to have my aversion for these topics and has written an insightful post entitled Debate on DRM which contains the following excerpt

Doc Searls points to a weblog post by the Guardian Unlimited’s Lloyd Shepherd on DRM and says it’s one of the most depressing things he’s read. Shepherd wrote:

I’m not going to pick a fight with the Cory Doctorows of the world because they’re far more informed and cleverer than me, but let’s face it: we’re going to have to have some DRM. At some level, there has to be an appropriate level of control over content to make it economically feasible for people to produce it at anything like an industrial level. And on the other side of things, it’s clear that the people who make the consumer technology that ordinary people actually use - the Microsofts and Apples of the world - have already accepted and embraced this. The argument has already moved on.

Doc points to others making arguments in refutation of Shepherd’s thesis (Tom Coates and Julian Bond), and ends his post with:

We need to do with video what we’ve started doing with music: building a new and independent industry...


I don’t see how DRM necessarily disables independents from continuing their efforts. Apple has invested in iTunes and iPods, but one can still listen to other formats and subscribe to other services from a Mac. In fact, what Shepard is proposing is that we accept the fact that companies like Apple and Google and Microsoft and Yahoo are going to have these mechanisms in place, and what can we do to ensure we continue to have options on our desktops?

There’s another issue though that’s of importance to me in that the concept of debate being debated (how’s this for a circular discussion). The Cluetrain debate method consists of throwing pithy phrases at each other over (pick one): spicey noodles in Silicon Valley; a glass of ale in London; something with bread in Paris; a Boston conference; donuts in New York. He or she who ends up with the most attention (however attention is measured) wins.

In Doc’s weblog comments, I wrote:

What debate, though? Those of us who have pointed out serious concerns with Creative Commons (even demonstrating problems) are ignored by the creative commons people. Doc, you don’t debate. You repeat the same mantra over and over again: DRM is bad, openness is good. Long live the open internet (all the while you cover your ears with your hands and hum “We are the Champions” by Queen under your breath).

Seems to me that Lloyd Shepherd is having the debate you want. He’s saying, DRM is here, it’s real, so now how are we going to come up with something that benefits all of us?

Turning around going, “Bad DRM! Bad!” followed by pointing to other people going “Bad DRM! Bad!” is not an effective response. Neither is saying how unprofitable it is, when we only have to turn our little eyeballs over to iTunes to generate an “Oh, yeah?”

Look at the arguments in the comments to Shepherd’s post. He is saying that as a business model, we’re seeing DRM work. The argument back is that the technology fails. He’s talking ‘business’ and the response is ‘technology’. And when he tries to return to business, the people keep going back to technology (with cries of ‘…doomed to failure! Darknet!’).

The CES you went to showed that DRM is happening. So now, what can we do to have input into this to ensure that we’re not left with orphaned content if a particular DRM goes belly up? That we have fair use of the material? If it is going to exist, what can we do to ensure we’re not all stuck with betamax when the world goes VHS?

Rumbles of ‘darknet’, pointers to music stores that feature few popular artists, and clumsy geeky software as well as loud hyperbole from what is a small majority does not make a ‘debate’. Debate is acknowledging what the other ’side’ is saying, and responding accordingly. Debate requires some openness.

There is reason to be concerned about DRM (Digital Rights Management–using technology to restrict access to specific types of media). If operating systems begin to limit what we can and cannot use to view or create certain types of media; if search engine companies restrict access to specific types of files; if commercial competition means that me having an iPod, as compared to some other device, limits the music or services at other companies I have access to, we are at risk in seeing certain components of the internet torn into pieces and portioned off to the highest bidders.

But by saying that all DRM is evil and that only recourse we have is to keep the Internet completely free, and only with independents will we win and we will win, oh yes we will–this not only disregards the actuality of what’s happening now, it also disregards that at times, DRM can be helpful for those not as well versed in internet technologies.

I tend to agree with Shelley 100% [as usual]. As much as the geeks hate to admit it, DRM is here to stay. The iTunes/iPod combination has shown that consumers will accept DRM in situations where they are provided value and that the business model is profitable. Secondly,  as Lloyd Shepherd points out,  the major technology companies from Microsoft and Intel to Apple and Google are all building support for DRM in their products for purchasing and/or consuming digital media.

Absolutists who argue that DRM is evil and should be shunned are ignoring reality. I especially despise arguments that are little more than throwing around dogmatic, pithy phrases such as "information wants to be free" and other such mindless drivel. If you really think DRM is the wrong direction, then create the right direction by proposing or building a workable alternative that allows content creators to get paid without losing their rights. I'd like to see more discussions in the blogosphere like Tim Bray's On Selling Art instead of the kind of crud perpetuated by people like Cory Doctorow which made me stop reading Boing Boing.

PS: There's also a good discussion going on in the comments to Shelley's blog post. Check it out.


 

Tuesday, January 10, 2006 4:32:26 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Nice post. Bad! Technological Determinism. Bad!
Mike Padula
Tuesday, January 10, 2006 4:59:42 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
"If you really think DRM is the wrong direction, then create the right direction by proposing or building a workable alternative that allows content creators to get paid without losing their rights."

If you really think DRM is the right direction, then please explain how DRM helps content creators get paid without losing their rights. Because that is not at all clear to me.

You're right though that DRM is probably not going to go away. At least until either the content owners lose their belief that it helps them, or that DRM gets so fragmented and so unpleasant that the marketplace rejects it.
Tuesday, January 10, 2006 5:06:00 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Julian,
>If you really think DRM is the right direction, then please explain how DRM helps content creators get paid without losing their rights. Because that is not at all clear to me.

Nice try to draw me into a pointless debate. I never said DRM is the right direction. I did say that DRM is here to stay AND that iTunes/iPod has shown that it can provide value to content producers and consumers.

The debate needs to be elevated to discussing and providing alternatives to DRM [if that's what people want] instead of arguing about whether DRM is evil or not which is a pointless waste of time.
Tuesday, January 10, 2006 5:49:06 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
"AND that iTunes/iPod has shown that it can provide value to content producers and consumers."

I'd love to hear exactly how iTMS/iPod shows how DRM provides value to customers. But I guess you won't want to debate that either. ;-) I happen to think it's also arguable that DRM in iTMS adds any value to content producers. It probably wouldn't exist if Apple hadn't agreed to the DRM, but that's another story.

And yes, I agree that discussing alternative business models that don't rely on DRM is a good thing.
Wednesday, January 11, 2006 2:53:07 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Julian,

This is just the kind of debate that is pointless. Apple has sold 850 million songs through iTunes. That's 850 million decisions by consumers that the exchange of $0.99 for a DRM-encumbered audio file is a value-enhancing transaction. 850 million decisions that an .m4p file is worth more than the $0.99 in your pocket. Dare shouldn't have to debate this; there is no debate.
Anthony Cowley
Wednesday, January 11, 2006 7:49:04 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Anthony. Would the customer receive greater or less value if iTMS didn't use DRM? I can't see any argument that the customer gets more value from the use of DRM except that the service probably wouldn't exist at all without it.

Would iTMS have sold more or less if it didn't use DRM? We have no idea and few ways of discovering because the major copyright owners will not allow it. So we can only compare a few much smaller niche examples and a few quasi-legal sites in other countries. It's not a question of whether iTMS has done lots of transactions. It's whether DRM adds value to those transactions.

850M transactions is a big number. It's also 3 factors of ten smaller than the P2P file sharing number of transactions if we can believe Big Champagne's analysis. It's also not known for sure, but likely, that Apple just about broke even on those 850M and may have made a loss. But that's acceptable to them because it supports iPod hardware sales where the real profit comes from.

So would Apple have sold as many iPods if iTMS didn't use DRM? I rather think they would have.
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