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For those of you who don’t know, DRM is an acronym for Digital Rights Management. For the bulk of Geekdom, DRM is considered a dirty word (to Geeks, acronyms are words). This is not so much because of what DRM is, but because of the manner in which it has been implemented.
In a pure sense, DRM is simply an offshoot of copyright. It’s another way of saying “I created this content, and I should have control over what happens to it.” In theory, DRM is intended to protect the interests of the creator of content, just like copyright.
Part of the confusion here comes from the ‘Digital’ part of DRM. In days of yore, things like music and movies were recorded (by small blue trolls) on strips of magnetic tape. It was called ‘analog’, as opposed to ‘digital’, and it was a completely different way of recording data. The scope of these differences is far larger than I’m willing to go into here, but I will point to the most pertinent difference: analog content degrades when it’s copied, and the degradation is cumulative. Digital content does not degrade when copied.
If you stop and think about it, you can see why the music and movie industries were okay with cassette tapes and VCRs but got their knickers in a twist over CDs and DVDs.
And so the people who had no talent but had nonetheless made obscene amounts of money by managing and manipulating people who did have talent found themselves staring straight into the obliteration of their golden geese. This scared the crap out of them, and they scrambled for ways to stop the inevitable. They made the mistake of selecting the ‘Stormtrooper’ option.
It was kind of predictable, the sort of mistake made by people who think they’re in control (or even that it’s possible to be in control). Rather than addressing the changing world, acknowledging the needs of the audience and embracing new technologies, the boneheads decided to fight it all. I think they actually believed there is a small concrete bunker somewhere in Kansas labeled ‘Internet’ that can be seized and controlled. Really.
So they assigned the small blue trolls to the task, and they implemented a variety of objectionable practices that have become known, collectively but inaccurately, as ‘DRM’. Things like the infamous Sony rootkit.
As I said, these various bits of nastiness are not, precisely, DRM. They are simply examples of DRM. Much the way Roman Catholicism is not ‘religion’ but rather an example of religion. And Digital Rights Management, as a concept, is not particularly evil. There’s nothing inherently wrong with an artist desiring just compensation for their work. I do, however, draw the line at imaginary compensation. You know – the outrageous sums the RIAA and MPAA say they’ve ‘lost’ to pirates. I can understand having issues with those who mass produce counterfeit content and market it, but I refuse to carry it over to the schmucks who just make a copy to play in their car. I don’t feel artists can realistically expect a guarantee of compensation for their efforts. But they should be able to stop others from capitalizing on it.
Now, there are those who (mistakenly) believe they occupy the other end of the spectrum. These are the folks who have given rise to the term ‘Copyleft’, otherwise known as ‘Viral Licensing’. One of the earliest forms of this (and probably the best known) is the GNU General Public License. The GPL is a heavy hitter in the so-called Free and Open Source Software world (think Linux). In a nutshell, the GPL states that code covered by the license can be freely distributed and modified, but any resultant product must also be covered by GPL. This is where the ‘viral’ comes in. If you want to use this ‘free’ stuff to make other stuff, your new stuff must also be ‘free’. And this carries on if anyone else wants to take your ‘free’ stuff to make even more stuff.
The basic idea is a good one. The original product is offered at no monetary cost, and we want to protect against anyone charging people to use it or any part of it. But it’s not exactly free, or even especially close to it (unless we narrow our definition of free to ‘without monetary cost’). It’s rather like Robin Hood stealing from Nottingham, but only giving the proceeds to the poor if they agree to use them only for robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. It’s really only a façade of freedom.
In fact, it’s Digital Rights Management.
As stated, I don’t actually have any issues with DRM. And I’m kind of a fan of viral licensing. I am bothered by the use of the term ‘Copyleft’ – as though DRM of one sort is somehow morally superior to DRM of another sort. Truth is, they are all very firmly ensconced at the right end of the spectrum.
To my knowledge, there is only one true example of ‘Copyleft’. Woody Guthrie invoked it when writing songs in the early forties:
“This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright # 154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.”