FTC wants to hear from you about DRM

Chris sez, "Perhaps inspired by the Spore DRM debacle of last year, the FTC is going to hold a Town Hall Meeting on the subject of Digital Rights Management (DRM) in March. They are soliciting requests and suggestions for discussion from the general public via a contact form or e-mail through January 30th. This is a great chance to make your viewpoints heard!"

Man, I wish I could be at this thing!

Digital rights management (DRM) refers to technologies typically used by hardware manufacturers, publishers, and copyright holders to attempt to control how consumers access and use media and entertainment content. Among other issues, the workshop will address the need to improve disclosures to consumers about DRM limitations. Interested parties may submit written comments or original research on this topic.
FTC Town Hall to Address Digital Rights Management Technologies - Event Takes Place Wednesday, March 25, 2009, in Seattle (Thanks, Chris!)


  1. or do they just wish to legitimize their already made decisions with a pretence of consultation?
    The people need a Bribery Union. A collective body that takes small donations from ordinary individuals and amasses them to a a volume capable of competing with the corporations that normally tell the FTC what to do.

  2. This seems like as good a place as any to ask this question, especially since it will be on the FTC folks’ minds. The traditional view of copyright is that it exists to help an author recover the cost of creating the work: if you let everyone copy at their own cost, the author can’t recover anything. DRM exists as a means of enforcing copyright. The problem of recovering sunk cost exists now mostly in areas like software and entertainment, but with projects like RepRap and Fab@Home, which could eventually change the whole model of manufacturing, in time it could extend to all corners of life. So, given all that, what are the acceptable alternatives to the current DRM approach?

  3. An example of the government doing what it’s supposed to do – listening (at least theoretically) to the public. We’ll see what actually happens, of course, but still. Another day, another step in the right direction.

    I know there will be cynics out there but compared to the approach at ‘governance’ where I live – Thailand – this is downright fantastic.

  4. @ #4, as I understand it, traditional copyright is only secondarily intended to protect the creator. Its real intent, in the US at least, is to ensure that the public receives the benefits of creative work in an orderly fashion, through the auspices of a competitive free market, with works in timely fashion passing into the public domain. That understanding has changed today, particularly through the efforts of big commercial players. But its original intent was primarily to protect creators, but to benefit the public.

  5. @4: Copyright exists to benefit the public—trading a limited monopoly on a creative work for the work becoming free to the public to use at their whim after that limited monopoly expired. (At least in theory. Nobody could have anticipated Disney, but that’s a subject for another rant.)

    And if DRM is supposed to enforce the recovery of copyright costs, it’s doing a piss-poor job. To save myself a bunch of restatement here, I’ll note that my submitted comments were the “What’s Wrong With DRM?” section of the following FAQ I wrote (with a little embellishment to add some non-e-book-related examples).


    In short:

    1. DRM cannot protect ink and paper.
    2. DRM is easily cracked (and much e-book DRM already has been cracked)
    3. DRM is vulnerable to business failure.
    4. DRM is unnecessary—the outfits selling books an d music without it (including Amazon’s MP3s and, now, iTunes) have not gone under.
    5. DRM limits consumer choice. (Try to read a DRM’d Mobipocket file on an iPhone sometime. Hint: you can’t—legally.)
    6. DRM adds unnecessary expenses.
    7. DRM adds unnecessary technical complexity.

    I suggest reading the DRM and copyright-related essays in Cory Doctorow’s Content. (I especially recommend the eReader version, as it’s the one I formatted myself.) Another good book on copyright theory is James Boyle’s The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind. Both of these books are available free on-line if you Google for them.

  6. Cory, you may have an extra space in this sentence, “Man, I wish I could be at this thing!”
    Could you have meant “Man, I wish I could beat this thing!” instead? :)

  7. Logic is how you win this:

    – Consumers don’t like DRM.
    – DRM doesn’t stop piracy. (Nor does litigation!)


    – A lack of DRM will always be preferred over DRM in the marketplace. The most sales will always go to the better product.
    – DRM actually encourages piracy (and therefore reduces sales) if there is no legit alternative.

    1. Drop DRM
    2. Profit

    There is no mystery step here.

  8. @Robotecb Master You are correct: DRM sucks. But the question was, as the Vogon guard asks Ford Prefect just before chucking him out the airlock, what are the alternatives? What, overall, would suck less?

    Your item #4, pointing out that content producers who don’t use DRM haven’t gone belly up, is a start. But the FTC is likely to be operating from a certain set of assumptions: (1) the public is best served when authors and publishers produce lots of nifty stuff, (2) authors and publishers are most likely to produce nifty stuff when they have a financial incentive to do so, and (3) DRM is a mechanism to enforce copyright law, which in turn is how we, though our elected representatives, have decided to reward authors and publishers for the up front work to produce nifty stuff.

    If you want to change the mind of the FTC on DRM, you’re probably going to need to convince them not just that DRM sucks, but that some alternative is available that sucks less. Otherwise, they’re going to assume that abandoning DRM would result in authors and publishers getting paid less, reducing the incentive to produce nifty stuff, which would reduce the amount of nifty stuff available to the public. For instance, if you could convince them that, say, the public benefit from abandoning the suckiness of DRM would outweigh the public harm from the decrease in nifty stuff, you might get somewhere. You’ll get bonus points if you can show actual antitrust issues arising from the suckiness of DRM, since antitrust is one of the things the FTC grooves on, but if you (we) can’t articulate a simple, clear alternative, you (we) are probably headed for the airlock.

  9. So what was the Spore DRM debacle last year?

    I had been pretty excited by the early versions of the game, but the artwork on the stuff that was released was just too cutesy-poo for me.

    So I didn’t bother getting the game, because I would have been cringing rather than playing with it. Not cringing as badly as I do every time I’ve had the misfortune to glimpse WoW art, but cringing all the same.

    Above and beyond looking tacky/ugly, what was the problem with Spore?

  10. Asia: Fake DVD’s are about $2 for a perfect copy. Most wealthy people have a large library of films. Europe: DVDs are a about $20 each. Few people have more than 10. That tells me all I need to know. The movie industry has it all wrong.

  11. @10: “Mechanism to enforce copyright law”? That’s like saying it’s important a car has a brake but it doesn’t matter whether the brake works or not. DRM gives consumers several different kinds of hell and doesn’t work when it comes to enforcing copyright law. If it actually worked, it would be one thing.

    But we’re seeing games like Spore with the most restrictive DRM in the world being available cracked before they even come out commercially. We’re seeing pirates ignore the e-books altogether and scan the paper books, or we’re seeing them simply crack the e-books with one of the DRM removers (convertlit, mobidedrm, pml2html, etc.) that can be found in five minutes of Googling. Why should consumers have to suffer annoying inconveniences for something that doesn’t even work? That’s like insisting cars carry a complicated seatbelt that takes five minutes to put on or take off, but doesn’t actually offer any protection in an accident.

    Antitrust issues? Like, say, the way that Amazon.com is (rumored to be) preventing their Mobipocket subsidiary from releasing a Mobipocket reader for the iPhone, because they don’t want the competition for their Kindle? That comes under “limits consumer choice.”

    @11: Spore came with a restrictive form of DRM that was so heinous that literally thousands of people posted negative reviews of it on Amazon and it was probably the most pirated computer game in history. Also, lawsuits have been filed against Spore because the form of DRM it used has actually been shown to be damaging to computers and very hard to remove.

  12. DRM has little to do with preventing physical piracy. After all, you don’t have to break the DRM to make a physical copy.

    That DRM is ineffective against piracy or can be cracked easily doesn’t seem to me to be a valid reason the government should be against it.

    The reasons government should be against it are more about consumer protection. DRM harms the costumer.

    The consumer isn’t properly notified of the restrictions imposed upon what they buy and even if they were, they would have difficulty understanding it. I mean, how do you tell a teacher that they can’t play a blu-ray disc on a school projector because it isn’t approved?

    It is bad enough that the government allowed DVD regions which is a blatant attempt at price fixing, but DRM is used today to impose restrictions on how consumers use goods they own and the government’s anti-circumvention law ensures they can get away with it.

  13. ALOISIUS – DRM is applied to a lot of things that aren’t physical, but if we’re talking about a disc, normally you do have to break the DRM to make a physical copy. It wouldn’t be very good DRM if you didn’t have to.

    Game discs (PC or console) are protected in ways that screw with the physical format of the disc to create unreadable parts. Standard burners can’t write that crap, and there’s no way to preserve it in a file, so to copy the game, you copy just the readable portions and remove the DRM code that looks for the unreadable part. Even games that require online activation tend to have some kind of protection on the disc. When it comes to console games, the firmware of the console checks for the protection on the disc, so you have to modify the console in some way.

    Similarly, DVD CSS puts the disc keys in the lead-in. That part of the disc isn’t writable on a DVD-R.

    Region coding isn’t really about price fixing, it’s about preventing (hah!) DVDs from being sold in a part of the world where the movie hasn’t been released in theaters.

  14. Weighted – I was talking mostly of real piracy rings in Asia that actually press discs. Granted most of them crack the DRM these days, but they certainly have the hardware necessary to make a near perfect copy of anything, DRM and all.

    Region coding isn’t really about price fixing, it’s about preventing (hah!) DVDs from being sold in a part of the world where the movie hasn’t been released in theaters.

    That would be a terrific argument if a huge numer of movies re-released on DVD weren’t region locked. The same goes for video game region locking. It is simply a method for content owners to charge different rates to different countries and not have to deal with people importing them across borders which is normally quite illegal.

  15. That is great to hear1 I will be working to try and coordinate a Students for Free Culture / Freedom for IP event here in Seattle around the meeting.

    Anyone interested in working together on this is free to contact me at Brian@freedomforip.org .

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