How Digital Copyright Treats Consumers Like Enemies

I just finished reading Content, a collection of recent articles and speeches by Cory Doctorow, and it has some choice commentary on the adversarial nature of the DRM business model. DRM, he writes, is the idea “that people who make record players should be able to specify whose records you can listen to, and that people who make records should have a veto over the design of record players.” DRM technologies “treat the owner of a computer or other device as an attacker, someone against whom the system must be armored.”

The natural consumer impulse is almost the direct contrary: “You know what I would totally buy? A record player that let me play everybody’s records.”

And DRM’ed content and platforms, clearly, weren’t developed in response to consumer demand:

“Why manufacture a device that attacks its owner? A priori, one would assume that such a device would cost more to make than a friendlier one, and that customers would prefer not to buy devices that treat them as presumptive criminals…. Surely, this hurts sales: Who goes into a store and asks, ‘Do you have any music that’s locked into just one company’s player? I’m in the market for some lock-in.’”

And that business model really does treat content owners, rather than viewers and listeners, as the real customer. Viewers and listeners, clearly, are really the enemy to be guarded against. Doctorow notes the irony of Jon Johansen, who wrote the code to break CSS encryption on DVDs, being brought up in Norway on charges of “unlawfully trespassing on a computer system.” When his defense asked, “Which computer has Jon trespassed upon?” the answer was: “His own.”

This business model obviously couldn’t survive in a freed market, unless there’s a niche market for media platforms tailored to the needs of sadomasochists. You could buy them at the little shop in between Being Hit on the Head Lessons and Abuse.

So why do people buy it? They don’t have any choice. That’s what the manufacturers make, under threat of lawsuit by the content “owners.”

The good news is, even the threat of lawsuits can’t overcome the allure from the competitive advantage of selling a “record player that plays everybody’s records.” The first bricks have already been pried out of the wall, with iTunes discontinuing DRM. And it’s only going to snowball from here.

Doctorow also comments, in typical smartass style, on the unenforceability of shrink-wrap contracts. A business might willingly agree to use only one brand of coffee, in return for “a sweet deal on a coffee machine” for the office. “But no one does this at home. We instinctively and rightly recoil from the idea that our personal, private dealings in our home should be subject to oversight from some company from whom we’ve bought something. We bought it. It’s ours….”

Damn straight. “There’s no conceivable world in which people are going to tiptoe around the property they’ve bought and paid for, re-checking their licenses to make sure that they’re abiding by the terms of an agreement they doubtless never read.”

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