DRM: how things you’ve bought aren’t actually yours

We free software folk have been trying to warn people about the dangers of Digital Restrictions Management for a while, we really have. Yet you just aren’t listening to us! Well, here are two recent all-too-obvious-in-hindsight DRM travesties by Microsoft that might have you reconsidering. If Microsoft can’t even be trusted to do DRM correctly, then who can?

First, Microsoft decided to close down their MSN Music service, presumably because it was unprofitable. Unfortunately for any customer who ever bought anything from the store, they won’t be able to play their purchased music files on any additional devices come June because Microsoft is shutting down the servers. Each audio file is actually a file encrypted with DRM, and once the servers go away, so too go any of the means of being able to decrypt the files. Ain’t it great that “pirates” will be able to play their downloaded mp3s indefinitely, but people who legitimately purchased the music will be stuck with worthless files and no refund? But that’s what you get when you willingly buy something infected with DRM.

Microsoft also uses Digital Restrictions Management on all of its Downloadable Content for the XBOX 360. All downloaded files are linked both to the user account and to the hardware. Want to change accounts? You can’t take your downloads with you. Buying another XBOX 360? Can’t take ‘em with you. Buying another XBOX 360 because your old one broke? You’re still screwed! That’s right, this poor sap’s XBOX 360 broke, taking all of the downloaded content that he bought along with it, and Microsoft’s only response was “buy all your content a second time.” It makes you wonder why they even use the word “buy”, because when you actually buy something it implies that you actually own it. If this is really the future of gaming consoles, we gamers are in big trouble. Microsoft is trying to supplant a decent product (games on DVD that can be played in any console) with an inferior one, simply because they can make a lot more money with it, what with the duplicate downloads, lower distribution costs, no need to print manuals, etc.

And why shouldn’t they? By buying all of this content that’s infected with DRM, we customers are bringing it all down upon ourselves. Unfortunately, many people will only realize too late how evil DRM is — after they’ve spent thousands of dollars on music only to have the authorization servers shut down, or after they’ve spent hundreds of dollars on downloadable content only to have their XBOX 360 crap out on them. And Microsoft doesn’t care about fixing any of this. They already have your money, and they’re big enough they can just tell you to go screw yourself. Actually, I wish they were that kind, because tauntingly suggesting you pay again for everything you’ve already purchased once is worse.

So join with me and refuse to buy anything that’s infected with DRM. Support the EFF’s anti-DRM campaign. Support the Defective by Design campaign. Spread the word. Don’t be the poor sod who abruptly finds himself “owning” hundreds of dollars of worthless DRM-infected files that cannot ever be used again.

8 Responses to “DRM: how things you’ve bought aren’t actually yours”

  1. Greg Maxwell Says:

    I think this is a place where it might surprise you that I don’t completely share your views.

    I can’t say DRM is good, but only because nothing that results in an effective loss of freedom for the public is good in my eyes. However, most of the “evil of DRM” that people are talking about is ultimately the fault of copyright law and not DRM.

    You see… copyright law, as it is today, is pretty darn oppressive: For example, copyright can prohibits you from acting ethically. You have a piece of beautiful art, or maybe some useful software? Your friend can’t afford it, but would like a copy. You could make one with almost no effort and at effectively no cost, so it would seem unethical to deny him. Yet if you follow your conscience and copy that floppy, you could be infringing the author’s copyright and could be sued and, if not now perhaps soon, face criminal charges, and even be banned from the internet (a proposal which is not unique to the UK).

    Most people who have thought about the subject realize that copyright does achieve some important ends. So wholesale abolition of copyright would probably not be an optimal situation even if it might be somewhat better than where we’re headed right now, and of course there are enormous vested interests in the way things currently work. These factors makes the problems of copyright much harder, because we can’t just wipe the slate clean.

    Worse, most of the public is completely ignorant about their rights and obligations under copyright. Even if we had an ideal minimalistic copyright system that does only what is needed to promote progress and not a bit more, Joe Six-pack would almost certainly violate it constantly and unrepentantly. “How could I have broken the law? I just clicked a button!”

    Here is where DRM comes in: it makes the copyright obligations Joe has been ignoring far more obvious. This might make Joe mad. I say: good! We need as many Joes mad as possible if we’re to achieve a policy change. …. and we need Joe to become educated, because a public that will ignore sane minimal restrictions will always be used as a justification for outrageous over-restrictions.

    Beyond being an easy justification for oppressive laws, and preventing a good copyright policy from being effective, Joe’s ignorance in the current legal climate makes him, and an enormous part of the public, into criminals. When the law makes a large portion of the public into criminals over acts they perform without thought then the law can become a serious tool for abuse through selective enforcement. Honestly, I think much of the public might be better off with DRM frustrating their every move if it meant they would be safe from discriminatory enforcement by some law enforcement officer or media conglomerate who doesn’t like their political views or competition and is looking for an excuse to get them banned from the Internet.

    Of course, DRM doesn’t stop with those who don’t understand their copyright obligations under the law. It also hurts people who aren’t infringing copyright at all. It hurts artists, it hurts software developers, it hurts people who are simply trying to lawfully consume the works of others. In its usual implementations it is deeply anti-competitive and in order to make the DRM hard to circumvent there are a lot of freedoms which might have to die as collateral damage to reach that end, including the right to publish without the approval of others — a subject which I should really write an essay elaborating on, since it’s a risk far too often ignored by anti-DRM advocates.

    So, I do support DRM opposition, but not by advertising and advocating it to Joe Six-pack. To him, we should be blaming copyright rather than DRM. If the anti-DRM activists succeed in vanquishing DRM but fail to restrain copyright then we will not have addressed the root of the problem.

  2. T2A` Says:

    You know, DRM is really just a manifestation of the bullshit software licenses have been saying for years. DRM simply makes all that license text that no one reads enforcable. If you want to bitch about DRM you should bitch about licenses since they are the true problem here. In MOST cases the software you buy isn’t yours. The problem is that there’s no way for the company to stop you from treating it as such. DRM gives them that ability.

    I’m not saying DRM isn’t dumb; I’m just saying. D:

  3. Cyde Weys Says:

    I agree with both of you to the extent that copyright and software licenses (particularly EULAs) are variously evil, but I won’t be so sadistic as to cheer on DRM so people get burned by it and then want to take down copyright. DRM itself is sufficiently evil that I don’t feel bad about cheering against it and spreading the word.

  4. drinian Says:

    I think the eventual answer is not going to be DRM; it’s going to be in a revision of the social contract between creative producers and their audience (which is a much blurrier distinction now than at any point since the advent of recorded music). It’s going to take a combination of voluntarily clear and permissive licenses, as from Creative Commons, and an awareness on the part of the consumer that purely intellectual pursuits are worth funding. I think that both of these things are happening, and they need positive encouragement.

    Although I could do without the licensing conditions, I’ve also started voting with my dollars and buying my music at the Amazon MP3 store, and recommending it to others over iTunes — it’s cheaper, has higher-quality files, and can be used on any computer with any app, not just iTunes. Normal people can understand that.

  5. Jeff V Says:

    Good point about the creative commons copyright.

    I think that DRM is already on its way out as many of the people who were once the biggest advocates of DRM (iTunes) are now backing away from it. With so much legal open source and illegal pirating available to anyone with a computer, I think that it will become increasingly bad business to offer DRM ‘infected’ products.
    Perhaps simple economics will solve this for consumers.

  6. Spore fails to live up to its potential | Cyde Weys Musings Says:

    [...] each purchased copy of the game to three installations — ever. I’ve written about DRM multiple times in the past, so I don’t feel compelled to take this opportunity to make any statement on DRM [...]

  7. Spore fails to live up to its potential | PC Game Fun Time Says:

    [...] each purchased copy of the game to three installations — ever. I’ve written about DRM multiple times in the past, so I don’t feel compelled to take this opportunity to make any statement on DRM [...]

  8. ObliviousWarrior Says:

    I don’t think it’s so much the content authors that we have a problem with. It’s the record companies, the game producers, the MEDIUM that the content authors use to distribute to the masses, that are raping us in the ass. It’s THESE fools that are money hoarding filthy bastards. I’m pretty sure the guys who make the stuff are fucking ecstatic that people like their stuff so much that they want to get their hands on it by any means necessary (Metallica’s crusade against music piracy notwithstanding). Most artists don’t really care (and some actually applaud) that their work can get out to the masses for free. It’s the record companies that get a huge ass chunk of the profits from the sale of CDs and mp3s (via music downloading services like iTunes and the new Napster) that are waging a never ending war against the music pirates. These are the people directly responsible (and if not solely responsible, they share the blame) for the advent of DRM. Granted… we can all be better people and go out and buy the CDs or use the music services. At least if we buy the CDs, we can just rip the music off and be done with it: no protection encryption on the files. But when I don’t see the need to go out and buy a whole CD full of songs I will never listen to just to get my hands on the one song I WILL listen to… I want to download it. I remember my first mp3 player. Nice little Sansa e250, 2 GB. I had a trial subscription to the new Napster (the one you have to pay for). Now, I may be confusing Digital Restrictions Management with Digital Rights Management (and I see no difference between the two… as they’re basically the same) but when I have to resync my fucking mp3 player just to play the songs for another week… yeah, it’s fucking ri-god-damn-diculous.

    Copyright laws have some part in this scheme to fuck the consumer up the ass. That’s not why I’m bitching. My problem is mainly with the music industry. The problems with game software, while they don’t affect me personally, are also a blight on mankind. Sadly, I can see no end in sight, as no amount of posting blogs or inflammatory forum posts are going to make the corporate bigwigs less fond of the extra money they’re being slutty with. I’m all for open revolt and revolution, but unfortunately, the government and business have been in bed together since before the Nixon administration and fuck buddies do not just stop being fuck buddies because the children have vocalized their malcontent. At least before they used to keep it hidden. Now, as comedian/author Lewis Black is fond of saying, they’re out in the open, like two big dogs stuck to each other.