Punditry Sunday: Sony, DRM and Me

Sony went too far.

While the notion of protecting one’s rights might seem noble, stealthily installing poorly-written, insecure and crash-prone software that isn’t mentioned in the license agreement or anywhere else is just plain wrong. The techniques Sony used were worse than anything done by a spyware firm and were no different than those employed by your average malicious hacker.

To have one of the largest corporations in the world so flagrantly invade our machines and our lives without our permission is a huge slap in the face. However, as a copyright advocate and a privacy advocate, the Sony DRM scandal is a double blow and one I may never fully recover from.


As an artist, I’ve always felt that free distribution of creative work is the best arrangement for both creator and public. Artists, in my experience, create for themselves first and then share their creations in order to connect with the public. Though most hope to make some kind of living from their craft, the financial element is generally a secondary motivator and many have found that there are other ways to make money than by simply selling the work itself.

File sharing encourages this model. It gets the work out there, allowing more people than before to connect with an artist, and it aids the artist to exploit new means of making money. Many artists have embraced file sharing not just as an noble ideal, but as a practical means of making a living.

Yet many other artists, including most of those with major labels, have shunned file sharing fearing that it cuts into their more traditional business model. I strongly disagree with their decision (as shown by my Creative Commons License) and question their integrity as an artist, but, as the listening public, we are legally and morally obligated to respect their decision.

However, in order for us to respect their wishes, we have to believe that they are respecting ours. Respect can not work one way. So when Sony, without our permission, hacks our computers and installs buggy, insecure software just to prevent us from copying their CDs, it breaks the trust completely and turns honest people into thieves.

After all, what motivation can someone possibly have to buy a CD legally when they know that they are opening their computer up to be violated by the record companies. If they download the songs, they might be sued, but if they buy the CDs legally, they will have their machines violated.

It’s a tough decision that will push many willing buyers back to the world of file sharing, if for no other reasons than the improved security (it’s sad to think of file sharing as being more secure than buying CDs, but that’s how it is right now) and the fact that the record companies have treated them with such disdain.

DRM: Digitally Ruining Machines

Not all Digital Rights Management (DRM) is evil. For example, when I was talking about how to protect your images online, I was technically talking about DRM. However, the difference between what I discussed and what Sony did is so vast it’s hard to think of where to begin.

The DRM techniques I discussed for images were passive, didn’t install anything on the end user’s machine, much less do it stealthily and did nothing to break the trust between content creator and viewer. They were simple techniques that were designed to thwart a handful of potential thieves while creating minimal negative impact to legitimate users. They could all easily be circumvented by capable thieves, but that’s the price of not using stronger, more invasive methods.

Imagine for a second that, instead of discussing overlays and image piecing, that I had discussed stealthily installing a plugin or browser helper object that would interact with the users video port to prevent them from copying your images. This plugin couldn’t be removed without causing the monitor to fail and is not detectable with any regularly available software. Finally, it would open up gaping security holes in a system and cause many systems to crash randomly.

How would you feel about me then?

While DRM is supposed to be about protecting rights, it’s not supposed to place that burden on the end users. Most people are willing to accept a reasonable amount hassle for the sake of DRM, but they aren’t going to allow their systems to be violated just so someone else can be certain their music isn’t being copied illegally.

This has turned DRM, which was already a great source of controversy, into the same kind of Internet plague that spyware and viruses are considered to be. This means that those who want to practice a reasonable level of DRM have to worry about the image problems and fears that are now attached with the name. Every artist and content creator, musician, artist, writer and director all have to worry about how this will affect their ability to protect their work as both disdain for DRM and copyright holders increase.

The trust has been shattered, war has been declared and even those who want no part of it might find themselves involved.

The DMCA is to Blame

In the end though, the DMCA is to blame for most of these problems. The law, which was designed to update copyright law for the digital age, stripped users rights and created a list of strong, complex rules that were designed to replace the ambiguity that existed previously.

While a great deal of copyright infringement went on before the DMCA, none of it was done with spite. Prior to the DMCA, even with the heyday of Napster and the other early file sharing software programs, CD sales went up. Nonetheless, the recording and movie industries wanted clear lines drawn and they got them, they separated customers and artists like never before and, with lawsuits and DRM, created a sense of hostility between them.

Now, more file sharing is done than ever, the fear of lawsuits only having a mild effect on the rate of sharing, and no one feels guilty about it. Where once people wanted to support and enjoy artists at the same time, now they just want the product and feel no responsibility at all toward the people that created it.

And that is the grand result of the DMCA. The record and movie industries got what they wanted and now copyright holders who enjoyed file sharing era and the idea of free distribution of created works are caught in the exchange.

In the end, the Sony DRM controversy is just another escalation of that war that will further deepen the divisions, further hurt creativity and put even more distance between artists and the public they need.

The only people that can possibly benefit from such a war are the record industries, who get to guard their profits a little while longer, and the lawyers who represent them. Artists and viewers alike suffer terribly.

What that makes this is nothing more than protection for the middlemen. A sad testament to what our culture has become and bad sign for what the future holds.

[tags]DRM, Sony, Plagiarism, Copyright, Copyright Infringement, File Sharing[/tags]

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