Thursday, January 8, 2009

The death of copyright as we know it - iTunes goes DRM-free

This is big news and will shift the playing field for recording artists, the music industry, and every other form of digital entertainment now or in the future. Apple has announced that iTunes will go DRM-free.

DRM stands for Digital Rights Management. It takes the form of encryption and other software that prevent a song or video (or other form of electronic media) being played on anything but the platform it was licensed for. In other words, a song that you bought and downloaded through iTunes could not be played on anything other than the iPod that copy of the song was licensed to. You couldn’t burn it to a CD, put it on another MP3 player, or share it with anyone in any form. It's sneaky and frequently installs itself without the user being aware of it. Trying to get rid of it can kill your computer. Sony's particular DRM was so bad it left infected computers wide open to attacks from elsewhere on the net.

DRM has given most people the screaming shits, for all of the afore-mentioned flaws, and on sheer principle. “I’ve bought the damn thing! I own it! Why can’t I do with what I like?” is the major argument. And it’s a bloody good argument. You don’t have those restrictions placed on you when you buy a book, for example. You can lend it to friends, swap it around, gift it to someone else, and so forth. DRM’s restrictions on those common and fair uses got up a lot of noses.

DRM can also radically screw your computer. Right now I’m playing Neverwinter Nights 2, a D&D-based game, which now that I’ve sorted out the performance issues with my laptop, is screaming along and I love it to death. However, it comes with a copy-protection widget called SecuROM, which has been known to cause performance issues. Enough gamers are opposed to SecuROM on principle that there was a significant backlash against Spore, a long-anticipated game, because it uses SecuROM. There's even a lawsuit over it.

The final major problem with DRM is that when the company that encrypted the song goes belly-up, or just discontinues their music service, you’re left with a set of songs that you’ve bought and paid for, and cannot play. You see, DRM commonly goes online when the song is cued up and checks that there’s a valid account that bought the song, and blocks the media player from playing it if not. Lots of consumers have been caught by this, and now have a library of music that is completely useless, or they have to break the law and pirate it to access the product they have legitimately paid for. As XKCD put it, you can pirate now or pirate later, but with DRM you have to be a pirate eventually.

The music industry is the only one that (it thinks) benefited from DRM. The thinking was that it would restrict piracy and ensure consumers went and bought the music they wanted. However, they were sadly deluded. In reality, there’s no DRM that can be made that can’t be unlocked if you know how – it’s usually beyond the capabilities of the average home user, but it just needs one guy somewhere to remove the DRM, and they can share it any way they wish (usually through peer-to-peer sharing such as KaZaa or Bittorrent). Any lock that be made can be unlocked; it’s that simple.

Significantly, it’s been fairly well demonstrated that consumers will happily pirate and share DRM’d files – but if it’s DRM-free, they will voluntarily pay for it and not pirate it. This, I admit, is counter-intuitive, but speaks well of the basic honesty of most people. This may be because the majority of DRM-free downloads have, to date, been released by the artists themselves, and people are very happy to pay the recording artist directly rather than pay a greedy record company that skims off 90% of the swag for the privilege of giving you a metaphorical middle finger.

So the music industry has been fighting tooth and nail for DRM, saying that DRM-free music will kill off the industry and everyone will be the poorer for that as there won’t be the money or resources to promote new acts. To this end, the industry has vigourously pursued any perceived copyright breach to the extent of demonstrating its bona fides by prosecuting housewives for half a million dollars for inadvertently sharing 30-odd songs. They’re not in it for the money at all, no no no, how could you think such a thing? They’re poor merchants just trying to make an honest buck.

Some companies, such as Amazon, have been listening to the goings-on, decided that DRM is anti-consumer (no, really? You think?) and been dropping it from their services. It’s been good to see the momentum gathering, but with Apple dropping DRM from iTunes, the battle is all but over.

iTunes is such a major player in the music download business that this will radically change the landscape. Other music services will be forced to do the same. The consumer can only benefit.

But most significantly, Apple’s decision will drastically transform the music industry, and probably publishing and software and Hollywood business models as well.

The music industry has been bleating for years how online file sharing is killing the CD business. This is crap. Consumers are quite happy to pay a reasonable amount for a music product – they just object to unwarranted restrictions placed on them as to what they do with it once they’ve paid for it. Radiohead released their last album for download with no restrictions whatsoever – not even a payment was required. They said, simply, “Pay for it what you think it’s worth.” Yes, quite a few people chose to pay nothing. But enough people not only paid something, but quite a few paid enough, to make it a viable model - for a popular band like Radiohead, at least.

It’s been pointed out to the industry time and time again that instead of kicking helplessly about how the net is destroying their profit margin, that they need to find a new business model where they can make a reasonable profit from a quality product without impinging upon consumers’ rights. They have steadfastly refused to even contemplate such a radical concept. By doing that, they’ve effectively killed themselves off. The “recording label” of the past few decades will now transform into the “music download service” that we see now with iTunes and the like. Given the excesses and ethical negligence they’ve happily indulged in, I certainly won’t shed any tears over their passing. I predict the effective death of the music industry in the next six months. They’re dead men walking, they just don’t know it yet. The corpse may continue to scream for a while, but their day is over.

Less certain, but probable I think, is the transformative effect upon the publishing, movie, and software industries. With music now being DRM-free – giving the consumer the effective option to try it, and then pay for it if they like it – other entertainment media will, sooner or later, be forced to follow suit or die, I think. This is already starting to happen in PC gaming; many gaming developers are openly musing about not making any more games for PCs because they’re so easy to copy and share. No DRM has been found yet for a game that can’t be cracked in fairly short order. The culture among the under-25s consumer demographic now is “why pay for it when I can download it?” As a result developers are focussing much more on games for dedicated consoles like the Wii, Xbox and so on because it is much more difficult to pirate the game and engineer the consoles to play such pirated copies. It can be done with a hardware mod, but it’s not something the average consumer is up to doing for themselves (although if you ask around there’s always a guy who will “chip” your console, for a price).

DVDs are routinely hacked around by home users, copied and shared. No-one thinks anything of it, and there’s no cultural stigma attached to it. Everyone who has a computer has either done it or watched a copy of something that has been copied illegally.

This all adds up to a complete remodelling of the concept of “copyright”. The trend is crystal clear. Copyright as we know it is dead. Consumers now expect, and will get (one way or another), the ability to try something for free, and they may or may not then pay for it. Canny artists realised this some years ago, and not being violently anti-consumer like the RIAA, adopted the “Creative Commons” model, whereby the creator could release their product freely authorising its redistribution, and could choose whether or not they permitted its modification and use in part of whole by other creators.

Creative Commons is the new copyright. The legal system of every Western country will take some time to catch up, but traditional copyright is dead. Long live Creative Commons!

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