DRM: The (Possible) Downside for End Users

[April 29, 2000]

Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology incorporated into Web products is inevitable, and in most cases will give content providers a "needed" measure of control over content that's been lacking. The technology -- though not because it is intrinsically "bad" -- will also have many adverse and unfortunate consequences. Some content providers will use the new technology in opportunistic, coercive, politically 'fascist', and other detrimental ways which, by design or mere consequence, will empower certain classes of readers and (conversely) intellectually disenfranchise other classes of readers. Some will argue that the new model will actually benefit authors, because now, for the first time, a percentage of revenues for that "sweat of the brow" labor can be returned to the person who really deserves credit, "because s/he had the ideas and beat them out on a manuscript..." Of course this is a lie: significant money will not be returned to authors any more than it was under the terms of "CCC" arrangement. Pure market dynamics will be powerless to prevent this, given the bankruptcy of the capitalistic model at this precise juncture. The worst offenders will eventually be confronted by consumer-rights advocacy initiatives -- publicly and privately, on both large and small scale.

For one simple example of the tradeoffs between (a) "freely accessible" and (b) "accessible only under terms specified by the DRM policy": consider the XrML draft specification announced by ContentGuard [2000-04-27]. Compare the first (hitherto common) method of "open access" with the second method of "DRM policy-controlled access":

DRM technologies which support micropayments ("we charge you to read by the minute, we charge by the character; printing to paper is extra, copying to clipboard is extra; the document automatically expires after N days and cannot be read; etc.") and related features will be used in a way that dramatically reduces accessibility and usability of 'Web content' which hitherto has been distributed under liberal principles of "democratized, free access." Legitimate "security concerns" will be used to defend the new policies. Some people who currently have Net access will no longer have access because they will not be (1) economically empowered, and/or (2) appropriately affiliated institutionally. Copyright principles have become meaningless and (therefore) largely unenforceable in the Web context, to the great frustration of publishers and content providers, whose opportunities for generating a passive-income revenue stream (from the intellectual property they cunningly leech/extort) have been limited. DRM realized now has them salivating. The net effect -- one can imagine -- will be not unlike (software) patents and copyright law, which overall have served to restrict the dissemination and development of good ideas. We have seen this all before.

More to come...