A View From The Handbasket

Wednesday, November 16, 2005
Tedious pontificating on piracy and copy protection
Posted by neros_fiddle at 10:59 AM
Tedious, and a rerun.

I'd originally posted this in the comments (in slightly different form) Down There Somewhere, but thought it might merit more visibility, what with all this rootkit brouhaha. The question from Ron was, basically, how do you square the "evilness" of these DRM schemes with the obvious need of copyright holders to protect their stuff? Aren't music lovers getting a free ride, and aren't the labels obligated to protect their property?

(We'll leave aside the specific example of the Sony rootkit, since I think we can all agree that its security problems outweigh its value in protecting copyright, and consider the merits of copy protection in general.)

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, the Internet as distribution system is what has driven all of this. Up until ten years ago, there wasn't a good way to massively violate copyright. You had pirates selling bootleg cassettes on street corners, and friends making tapes for friends (Remember "home taping is killing music"? How quaint that sounds now.), but it was all pretty well contained by the limits of the technology. With analog tape, by the time you got three or so generations away from the source, it wasn't really something you wanted to listen to or watch anyway.

Now a single copy of something can be distributed with no generational loss across the globe for little or no cost. That's a whole different set of rules, and one the labels and studios are desperately trying to come to grips with. And so they're riding roughshod over usage patterns we've all come to accept as normal (like being able to copy an album into a portable device -- consumers have been doing that for 25 years now, ever since the first Walkman came out).

Yes, life's good for the music lover. It's hard to be an enthusaist and *not* take advantage of the situation. I download stuff for two reasons: (a) to get out-of-print material without paying outrageous money on eBay (which the copyright holder wouldn't profit from, anyway -- see below), and (b) to check out unfamiliar things, quite a bit of which I end up buying. (I dropped $90 in the record store recently, all on things I discovered from downloads. Ironically, it turned out that one of those CDs was equipped with Sony copy protection, though not the rootkit flavor.)

But as a rationalization for downloading that stinks, because most people just download stuff and don't bother to buy it if they like it. In a perfect world, downloading would be *encouraged* by the labels as an advertising vehicle, if consumers would follow up by buying stuff they like. But the follow-up doesn't happen in enough cases to make that model work.

(As an aside, where things like Bittorrent really shine is when the studio/label system fails. I want to watch the new Doctor Who series. There's no US distribution -- the system has failed to get the show to US viewers, either via broadcast or DVD. So I download it. That's a case where I think the copyright owner has no one to blame but himself.)

Likewise, I've discovered a lots of things by trading CD-Rs back and forth, and that's generated purchases I wouldn't have otherwise made. But you can't use that as a "real" argument either, because it's strictly honor system, and most consumers ignore the "honor" part.

So what can be done to protect copyright?

I think the labels/studios are going at it from the wrong angle. The stuff that hurts them isn't Joe Consumer making a copy for his iPod (or his friend overseas), it's the massive digital net-based duplication I talked about above. All of these DRM things do ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to address that problem. All you need is ONE copy to get into the wild, and you are hosed. And no matter how much intrusive technology is wrapped around content, someone somewhere will find a way to make a copy and put it on the net. All of this flailing about with complicated copy-protection schemes is a massive waste of time and money.

If I were the labels/studios, I'd do two things:

1) Accept that the rules have changed. Instead of trying to shoehorn their old business model in to the new reality, they instead need to adjust the business model. Look at iTunes -- that's a massive success, and it's a success because Apple understands what people today want to do with music, and they are adapting the sale of music to that reality. But, as I noted in a post a few weeks back, the labels don't get it and are trying to poison that well.

As part of that, the harsh reality is that the huge profits of the era when labels and studios had an effective monopoly on distribution (legal or illegal) are probably over. No more bands flying around the country on their own jet planes. No more giving a movie star a Porsche as a bonus for a good opening weekend. That's the way it is.

In fact, I would suspect that the used CD/DVD market is probably comparable to piracy in terms of a drain on new CD/DVD sales. After all, the sale of a used disc generates zero revenue for the copyright holder and (under RIAA/MPAA logic) costs the copyright holder a sale. But the copyright holders have accepted that (after some initial noise about banning used sales that proved legally untenable -- their lobbyists are better today, however).

2) In combination with making legal DRM-lite downloads available (DRM isn't intrinsically evil, just the more brain-dead versions of it. I think Apple strikes a good balance with iTunes, though I'd buy more from them if the files were of higher quality.), they need to focus their energy on making illegal distribution as hard as possible. Since so many of the pirate servers are overseas, this'll require more international cooperation, but I think it will eventually pay bigger dividends than trying to retrofit DRM onto existing technology, which as often as not blows up in the face of those who try to deploy it.

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