Digital rights - who owns your download?

Think you really own the movies, eBooks and video games you've bought or downloaded? Think again.
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01.Digital Rights Management


Not long ago, you could buy a recording or piece of software and use it as you pleased – you could give it away, sell it or make a copy for your own use. Advances in technology mean it’s become much easier to copy digital media such as music, movies and computer games – and because they’re digital, all those copies are just as good as the original.

Consequently, copyright owners have become more anxious to prevent copying and other unapproved uses; Digital Rights Management (DRM) is the way they attempt to do so.

What is DRM and how does it work?

DRM puts coded information into the data that makes up a media file. This is then read by your media player or computer to decide what you’re entitled to do with it, sometimes by checking an online authentication server. As a result, it may prevent copying or force you to sit through advertisements, and may limit the lifetime or number of times you can play the file.

It’s difficult to argue with the intention behind DRM. It’s an attempt to protect the rights of content owners – in particular, to minimise profit loss to people who would rather copy than legitimately purchase a product. However, DRM mechanisms can often impinge on a consumer’s ability to use their purchased product. Up until now, the emphasis has been to protect the product first, with the needs of consumers a poor second.

Why is DRM flawed?

Some of the restrictions imposed by DRM go beyond the protection of rights. The regional encodings of DVDs, for example, prevent players in Australia showing DVDs bought in another country (or from overseas through Amazon or eBay), often effectively denying access to foreign titles altogether here. The same restraints apply to electronic games. In 2005, Sony sought to prevent the use of “mod-chips” – devices that allowed PlayStations to play games with different regional codes. The Australian High Court ruled against Sony, asserting that playing a game on a PlayStation did not involve copying it, so copyright law was not breached.

Other dubious side effects to some attempts to impose DRM: in 2005, Sony BMG produced some music CDs that surreptitiously installed two programs onto consumers’ computers – one to limit copies to three, and the other to send a message to a monitoring server every time it was played. While the former was arguably trying to protect Sony’s rights, the second clearly went beyond this. More seriously, the existence of the software was not disclosed, and because it was installed as a “rootkit” (a form of software that exercises administrative control), it created an exposure to viruses that would not be easily detected. After the resulting uproar, Sony recalled the CDs and offered free tools to remove the software, though it took several attempts to get that right.

A brief history of copyright

Consumers have already seen an erosion of access to copyright material. When copyright was first introduced in England in 1709 under the “Statute of Anne”, the copyright period was 14 years, which was considered long enough to compensate the originator before freeing others to build on the idea. Now, it generally lasts for 70 years after the death of the originator – which, in an era of rapid technological advance, takes it considerably past its relevance.



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