Digital rights - who owns your download?

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02.Consumers strike back


There have been many attempts over the years to circumvent the constraints of digital rights management (DRM). Most famously, a small group in Norway, frustrated by their inability to play legitimate DVDs under Linux, developed a program called “DeCSS” to decrypt the contents. While their intent was just to make DVDs playable for consumers with Linux computers, their work exposed DVDs to unlimited copying without DRM. One of the developers was taken to court but later acquitted. There are now many variants of the decrypting code available on the internet, as well as a version, rather notoriously, printed on a T-shirt (the actual code is quite short and fits easily). Once out, it seems you can’t put the genie back in the DRM bottle.


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Finding the right balance

Nowadays, DRM has largely been abandoned in the area of music, mainly due to consumer pressure. iTunes, for example, now sells music DRM-free, as do most other online music services. But DRM persists in products such as games and eBooks. Recently, games publisher Ubisoft implemented a type of DRM that requires users to be constantly online. Of course, it also requires the validation servers to be online too, and many experienced problems using the games. The PC game “Settlers 7” refused to start from the moment it was purchased, and the problem persisted for weeks after the initial Australian release.

The surge in popularity of eBooks has seen a further growth in the use of DRM, preventing purchasers copying them from one device to another and limiting lifetimes. Amazon, which has DRM built into its Kindle eBook reader, deleted a number of titles from its repertoire upon discovering that the providers of the text did not, in fact, have rights to it. Unfortunately, this happened without notice, and consumers who believed they’d bought eBooks legitimately woke up to find that not only that their copies had disappeared from their Kindles, but so had their own notes and annotations. Ironically, the books concerned were George Orwell’s classic dystopias Animal Farm and, rather appropriately, 1984 – the famous dissertation on what our future could become if we let overzealous controls go unchecked.

Instances such as these have led opponents of DRM to refer to it as “digital restrictions management”, as it often seems to restrict the rights of users rather than protect those of copyright holders.

CHOICE verdict

The irony is hard to ignore: in an attempt to prevent copying, DRM schemes often instead encourage consumers to do so (see Consumers Strike Back Against DRM, above) – either to simply get products working, or retain control over their purchases (for example, to transfer songs to multiple devices).

Under the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Copyright Treaty of 1996, it is illegal in most countries (including Australia since 2007) to attempt to circumvent the copyright protections built into DRM, even when these measures go beyond the protection of legal rights. If you wish to have true ownership over the products you buy, and use them how and when you want to, ideally you would buy products that have no DRM at all. But this remains difficult for movies, games and eBooks, and because of the value of these products and the way they’re consumed, it may be a long time before the precedent set by music works its way through to other media.

For the full story on DRM, including the origin of DRM rights that Australians now have today, see the upcoming November/December issue of CHOICE Computer.

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