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The Clicker: DRM, for better or worse

Ryan Block, @ryan

Every week Stephen Speicher contributes The Clicker, an opinion column on entertainment and technology:

I was hoping to escape DRM this week, but it's so rare for the French government to start a war, that, when they do, you've got no choice but to cover it.

On Tuesday, French lawmakers overwhelmingly voted to give Apple the proverbial finger saying in essence, "open up your doors or we'll cry havoc and let loose the dogs of war." Well… perhaps "dogs of war" isn't strictly accurate. It's really more like "let loose a cadre of cappuccino-sipping French hackers," but still… it's a threat. Their problem? They're just sick of Apple being the only game in town.

At first glance, you might get the impression that the French are rebelling against DRM, but this really isn't the case. They just want in on the game and have decided that if Apple won't let them into the iPod party, they'll crash it.

You see – there are two theories when it comes to DRM (three if you count "to #@&# with that &#@!). The first, Apple's theory, is that you provide the whole ball of wax, the entire enchilada, the solution from soup to nuts, etc. With respect to iTunes, Apple has repurposed Henry Ford's motto: "You can use any portable media player and any download service you'd like as long as it's an iPod and iTunes." That approach has its merits. Right now millions of iPod users are blissfully listening to a billion songs and watching a million videos. Apple has used this control to create a service that, for the bulk of the consumers, is far less complicated and comes without the guessing game of "will all these things work together?"

However, for those among us (like the French) who dream of, nay, demand more – the picture gets a little fuzzier.

On the flip side of this digital record is, of course, Microsoft. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, they're certainly taking a different approach than Apple. Unlike the normal Microsoft M.O. of slowly (but surely) beating you into buying nothing but Microsoft products, when it comes to digital-media Microsoft is singing a new tune. "We are the DRM of the people. None of that proprietary stuff like Apple," they chant. The new plan of attack is to aggressively license their DRM technology and push third-party devices. The thought is simple: as long as consumers have an ample selection of playback devices the content won't feel locked down. That's a fine goal, in theory. However, one has to wonder how well this works when they, themselves, can't do it right. Take Origami for example.

Recently, like the rest of the tech world, I sat down to ponder the importance (or lack thereof) of Microsoft's poorly code-named Origami. Try as I might, I just couldn't grasp the market for this device. As a media writer, my first reaction was obviously, "It could be like a Portable Media Center, but better!" The problem, I quickly discovered, was DRM. As Vista approaches and native digital-cable support will finally be a reality, it's safe to say that more and more of Media Center's content will be wrapped in DRM and, while Microsoft did foresee syncing with devices such as Portable Media Centers, their support for syncing to other full-fledged computers (which Origami devices are) is nearly non-existent. Yes, they did buy FolderShare and this does provide a brute-force method of syncing. However, once DRM is applied, all bets are out the window (or should I say Windows?). Where does this leave Origami devices? That's unclear, but without some major changes to Windows Media Player, it's unlikely that you'll be carrying around the latest episode of The Sopranos on your Origami device.

This leads us back to the French. Ahh, the French... As a jingoistic proud American, I am predisposed to abhor the phrase "The French are right." Yet, one has to wonder if there is some merit to their stance. While I won't go so far as saying that Apple should be forced to open their platform (that's Apple's decision to make), I do fully support France's decision (should Apple not open up their formats) to make it legal to circumvent protection for one's own purposes.

Apple (and all DRMers) need to live with the consequences of their decisions. Content wants to be free. Content wants to move. If your business relies on locking down content, you should be responsible for locking it down. If your DRM isn't strong enough, that's your problem. Governments aren't… well… shouldn't be in the business of picking winners. That's not to say that the government shouldn't find and prosecute those who steal / publish / etc. illegally. To that end, the French bill includes several provisions for punishing pirates. Governments simply need to learn the difference between theft and "activities that could lead to theft." And as much as my mouth will hate doing this, I must begrudgingly force it to say that maybe, just maybe, the French government understands that difference. Alas, I will apologize to my mouth by treating it to a nice Cab. It turns out the French are good for a couple things.

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

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