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The Clicker: In Defense of DRM

Peter Rojas
Every Thursday Stephen Speicher contributes The Clicker, a weekly column on television and technology:

no drm

The mere letters strike fear, anger, hatred, and resentment in the hearts of libertarians everywhere. Oh sure – technically it's just three letters. However, you'd be hard pressed to convince the masses that DRM doesn't feel perfectly comfortable sitting amongst its four-letter brethren. Perhaps that's because it often travels with them in conversation. For instance: "S%^T! This D$#N content has DRM." Or "F&^K you Macrovision and your D&%N DRM."

There is no doubt that DRM has, through hard work, earned a place in our hearts. It's a special place usually reserved for the likes of plague, famine, Carson Daly, and other infinitely horrible things. However, today we ask a different question. Today we ask "Is DRM really that bad?"

If you can get past your visceral negative reaction, you?ll quickly see that DRM has actually brought consumers more advancements than restrictions. In truth, the hatred of DRM is a product of its own success; without the added options which DRM brings to the table there would be little to rebel against.

Take, for instance, the music industry. Before the widespread use of DRM, customers had two main options with regards to music: consumers could a) listen to the radio or b) purchase a bundle of songs (many of which they had no interest in). DRM has given consumers three further ways to enjoy music.

The first is obvious and has been covered ad nauseum. Still, it deserves a mention. Apple?s iTunes changed the music world forever. Unbundling songs from their albums provided a nearly-infinite jump in options. The purchasing power per dollar was greatly increased. Now $16.83 buys the perfect album. Add a quarter for the blank CD and you?re clearly ahead.

Second, DRM has paved the way for advanced ?radio stations.? Using services such as MSN Radio consumers have thousands of ?radio stations? at their disposal. Each of these stations comes with the ability to instantly skip to the next song. Compare this to the pre-DRM situation of two or three popular radio stations per market and you?re likely to agree that things are better today.

The third and most recent addition is, in some ways, the most exciting use of DRM. Services such as Rhapsody, Yahoo Music, and a rumored upcoming MSN service offer customers the option to rent an entire music catalog for a monthly fee. For as little at $5 per month consumers have access to over a million songs. The catch? Stop paying the monthly fee and you lose ?your? songs. And it?s those little quotation marks that are really at the center of all DRM issues.

Whose music is it?

In the beginning it was easy. Consumers would buy records. TV stations would broadcast shows. There was no copying and the Fair-Use doctrine was largely an issue centered around academia and news reporting. Then came Betamax. Suddenly it was possible for the general population to copy works. Lawsuits followed and the Fair-Use doctrine was expanded. It now made it legal for consumers to time-shift content, backup software, etc.

Over time a schism developed, and two mindsets emerged. There are those who believe that Fair-Use grants the end-user the ability, when possible, to enjoy the benefit of copying for personal use. The other group believes that they have an inextricable right to their content as they see fit; any effort on the part of the content provider to thwart reproduction of content is taken as an affront to Fair-Use. In reality Fair-Use is, and has always been closer to the former than the latter.

Hoping to both codify this distinction and to help stem the tide of piracy, lawmakers passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in 1998. Among other things, the act made it illegal to circumvent copyright protection. The purpose of this act was to restore a sense of balance to the copyright world. While the scope of the act and whether or not it?s the government?s responsibility to protect copy-protection are certainly up for debate, the sentiment behind the act stands ?content providers have a right to sell their content on their terms. Your decision is whether or not you agree with those terms. In short, limiting your use isn?t unfair.

Yes, it?s easy to see all the negatives associated with DRM and the laws that protect it. However, we must ask ourselves whether or not all the different ways we can now enjoy our content would be available if DRM wasn?t around and wasn?t protected. After all ? isn?t it at least a little fair to say that those who create content should get some say in how it?s used?

With all that said ? I?m still not getting rid of my copy of DVD Decrypter.

If have comments or suggestions for future columns, drop me a line at

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