Cory responds to Wired Editor on DRM

Chris Anderson, the Editor-in-Chief of Wired Magazine, has responded to my blog-post in which I take issue with Wired's latest product-review magazine, which breathes hardly a mention of DRM even as it reviews devices that are all crapped up with studio-paranoia-generated restriction technology.

Chris takes a "middle ground" position that I've heard described as "radical centrism" -- his position is that the EFF's opposition to DRM is "idealistic" and that there is therefore a practical "reality" that is better suited to the world. I think it's a false dichotomy, and I'd like to have a little go at Chris's post here and see if I can show why:

Consumers want more content, easier-to-use technology, and cheaper prices. If some form of DRM encourages publishers, consumer electronics makers and retailers to release more, better and cheaper digital media and devices, that's not necessarily a bad thing. This is just being realistic: much as we might want it to be otherwise, content owners still call most of the shots. If a little protection allows them to throw their weight behind a lot of progress towards realizing the potential of digital media, consumers will see a net benefit.
This is the crux of the argument. It starts out by saying that DRM is protection. And protection makes Hollywood comfortable. And a comfortable Hollywood will release more material. And the more material there is, the cheaper it will get.

But all of those propositions are materially untrue. Start with "DRM is protection." DRM is not protection. There has never been a DRM-covered file that was kept off the Internet. Ever. DRM has never once in the history of the field kept a file from appearing online, or from being booted by organized crime pirates. Despite its rhetoric on this, Hollywood is perfectly aware of how bogus the DRM-is-protection claim is; any entertainment exec you put on this spot on this will retreat to a badly-thought-out mantra to the effect that "DRM is a speedbump, it's not meant to keep files off the Internet, it's meant to 'keep honest users honest.'" As Ed Felten has pointed out, keeping an honest user honest is like keeping a tall user tall. DRM may keep a naive user from buying a cheap DVD abroad and bringing it home, and it may make it possible to charge you for things that you used to get for free, like format-shifting, but it won't ever keep an honest user honest.

DRM isn't protection from piracy. DRM is protection from competition. If you believe that "much as we might want it to be otherwise, content owners still call most of the shots," then you believe that the guy who makes the record should get a veto over the design of the record player. That the film studios should be able to ban the VCR. That the recording industry should have been able to shove SDMI down all our throats and make MP3 disappear.

This is a profoundly ahistorical proposition. Never in the history of media from the dawn of the printing press right up to the invention of the DVD have we afforded this kind of privilege to incumbent rightsholders. Quite the contrary: at every turn, brave entrepreneurs have engaged in "piracy" of copyrighted works (through devices like the record player, radio, cable television and VCR) and kept at it until the law caught up with the technology.

It's different with the DVD. With the DVD, the electronics companies completely wimped out. They traded their customers to the studios for two packs of cigarettes, and the result has been a decade of stagnation in DVD players. There's no indication that movies are being released sooner or more cheaply on DVD than they were on VHS; and in fact, the release of movies on VHS was preceded by incredible, absurd hyperbole about the video-cassette's inevitable destruction of the film industry and the complete impossibility of a movie ever being released by a studio for viewing on your VCR.

If you believe that "content owners still call most of the shots" then you believe that the studios will make movies and just not release them, they will amass a great pile of unreleased material in their Hollywood vaults and sit before the doors, arms folded, glaring at the world until it arranges itself into a more accomodating configuration. It is ridiculous. DRM hasn't convinced the studios to put new material online -- the offerings that the studios have put online are a pathetic shadow of the material one can download from the P2P networks. The studios have all the DRM in the universe at their disposal, but they're not using it to bring new material to market.

Nope, they're using it to sell you the same crap for more money. Chris loves his Microsoft Media Center PC, "essentially a DVR on steroids" -- at least, he loves it so far. That's because he hasn't been bitten on the ass by it yet, like this guy, who bought a Media Center PC so that he could catch the Sopranos and burn them to DVD. When he bought the PC, it was capable of doing that. Halfway through the season, the studios reached into his living room and broke his PC, disabling the feature that allowed him to burn his Sopranos episodes to DVD. And if you got suckered into letting your cable company give you a "free" PVR, you've got a nasty shock coming this season: your episodes of Six Feet Under will delete themselves from your hard drive after two weeks, whether you've gotten around to watching them or not.

If you want to watch all the Sopranos or Six Feet Unders in a row at the end of the season, you'll have to do it on Pay Per View. You'll have to buy what you used to get for free: the right to record a show and watch it for as long as you'd like. You get less, you pay more. And the studios can change the rules of the game after you've bought the box and brought it home: the only way you can protect your investment is if you can somehow ensure that no studio executive decides to revoke one of the features you paid for back when the box was on the show-room floor. Remember, these are the same studio execs who are duking it out for the right to limit how long a pause button can work for.

Chris likes the iTunes Music Store, calling it a success, but it's got the same problems as the Media Center and all the other DRM devices. The record labels can demand that Apple selectively break your music player, removing features based on secret negotiations, long after you've made your purchases. Apple will even force "updates" on you that remove features that you've chosen to add to your device, shutting you out of listening to your own music on the player you shelled out good money for.

The problem is that once your device vendor sells you out to the studios, they're 0wned. The studios' protection racket lets them demand practically anything from a device vendor -- check out "selectable output control" for some truly heinous world-domination horseshit.

So, Chris, that's why I disagree with your "realistic" notion:

If I were in Chris's seat, I would be sure that every single review of a DRM device carried the following notice: WARNING: THIS DEVICE'S FEATURES ARE SUBJECT TO REVOCATION WITHOUT NOTICE, ACCORDING TO TERMS SET OUT IN SECRET NEGOTIATIONS. YOUR INVESTMENT IS CONTINGENT ON THE GOODWILL OF THE WORLD'S MOST PARANOID, TECHNOPHOBIC ENTERTAINMENT EXECS. THIS DEVICE AND DEVICES LIKE IT ARE TYPICALLY USED TO CHARGE YOU FOR THINGS YOU USED TO GET FOR FREE -- BE SURE TO FACTOR IN THE PRICE OF BUYING ALL YOUR MEDIA OVER AND OVER AGAIN. AT NO TIME IN HISTORY HAS ANY ENTERTAINMENT COMPANY GOTTEN A SWEET DEAL LIKE THIS FROM THE ELECTRONICS PEOPLE, BUT THIS TIME THEY'RE GETTING A TOTAL WALK. HERE, PUT THIS IN YOUR MOUTH, IT'LL MUFFLE YOUR WHIMPERS. Link