Not Someobody Else's Problem - Mine.

Writing, thoughts, experiences and perspectives of Abhas Abhinav.

Why is it difficult to fight against DRM?

The Defective by Design initiative was formed almost 10 years back to raise awareness about DRM and how it harms users. It has evolved into a movement that encourages users to reject DRM instead of just making them aware of its existence, abuses and dangers.

July 9th, 2017 is going to be celebrated as the International Day against DRM and on this occasion I’d like to highlight my personal view on why the fight against DRM is difficult and why DRM-enabled platforms have been growing and becoming more mainstream.

However, it doesn’t mean that its not possible to choose a world without DRM. And I have some suggestions on how to get started, should you choose to.

What is DRM?

DRM officially stands for “Digital Rights Management” (rights of the publisher/author). The Free Software community regularly expands DRM to mean “Digital Restrictions Management”… but it does nothing to  assert, protect or promote the rights of users. Either way, DRM refers to techniques that limit you from doing what you might usually expect to do with various forms of digital media - like share, archive, copy, extract, transfer them. It usually involves using cryptography to encrypt the content in a way that it can be uniquely decoded by the intended user. But many so-called DRM systems essentially rely on obscurity and ignorance of users to restrict them from even doing simple things - such as playing music that you might have purchased or downloaded through the software without an active paid subscription to the DRM system.

What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear about DRM? Kindle eBooks? Netflix? Amazon Prime? Audible? How about Gaana & Hotstar? How about magazines on Google Play Newstand and Magzter? All of these content platforms use some form of DRM to lock you, the user, into using their software and platforms on their terms if you want to access or consume their content. DRM is about controlling the users’ experience of content and the terms on which it is available to the user.

In simple words, DRM is the technique a content publisher uses to ensure that they can track, limit and control who can access their content, on what terms, on which devices and operating systems, at what cost and so on. They use technological means tend to criminalise and disable the ability (at least for most non-technical users) of a person to share content that they might have access to - either gratis or after a purchase.

DRM systems are borne out of fear and distrust of their users.

The reason the Free Software Foundation (FSF), the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and other such organisations launch campaigns against DRM is because the prevalence, usage and popularity of various content platforms only strengths the roots of DRM in society; DRM remains a viable and reliable model for publishing content only as far as there are users who choose to use it and who accept it was a way of life. The reason why DRM is unacceptable as a way of life and dangerous is that it has serious conflicts with the rights of users and their right to freedom, sharing and privacy.

The Roots of DRM

So lets take a step back and look at the different ways DRM creeps into our lives and how, sometimes, we don’t even know it or question it.

Lets say you read a review or a mention about a book in a magazine or on a blog and you find it interesting and decide to purchase it. Now what are you options? You could visit a book store and purchase a printed copy. You could use an online shopping website and order a printed copy and then wait for it to be delivered to you. Or you could purchase a digital copy and read it on your mobile device or computer or eReader. You could also borrow a copy from a library (if you had access to one). Or from someone you know who had the book.

The choice you make about how you want to read this book is determined by three factors:

Purchasing an ebook might be the quickest way to get access to the book, but then you would be “forced” to read it on an eReader or computer or mobile device. And then you might not be able to print it out. Or lend it to others.

Purchasing a printed copy from a book store would mean travel and inconvenience since all book stores don’t stock all the books. So if the one you went to didn’t have the book, it might need to procure it for you and that might take additional time. Not to mention the (possibly) additional cost of doing so. Purchasing the same printed copy from an online store would at least be convenient and in the best case (for a popular book), you might even be able to get the book in your hands in a day or two.

But then if you really liked the book and wanted to read it in any free time you had, you would have to carry it with you. And this means, added weight to you bag in addition to the effort of having to lug the book around. And what if you didn’t want others to see (or question) what you were reading? Or why?

This decision making might look complicated and unduly complex. But, its reasonable. The questions above are real and the concerns valid.

So if you decided that you wanted the book quickly, didn’t mind reading it on your mobile device or computer and knew in advance that you wouldn’t want to share it with others (or print it out or copy/paste from it or quote from it at length), then choosing to purchase an eBook might be a natural choice. You would get the book instantaneously and conveniently.

Or if you preferred to read books printed on paper, then you might just purchase a printed copy in the most convenient and quick manner.

Or if you preferred eBooks, but didn’t want to pay for it (or couldn’t afford to pay for it), you could “borrow” it from an eBook library or access it from a peer-to-peer file sharing site (if it were popular and available).

You might wonder why we are examining these choices in the context of DRM. But, actually, DRM is an integrated component of the choices above. Many popular eBook platforms such as the Kindle publish books with DRM in them that limit what you can do with those eBooks. They favour an economy where everyone who wanted access to a book, purchased one; and unlike the printed book economy, don’t envision (or encourage) people wanting to resell or lend books they have read or don’t need anymore.

The problem is the digital nature of the artefact (book). When you have a physical book (a printed copy) it has certain properties: it can only be in one place at one time and it takes time, money and effort to duplicate (eg. if you photocopied a book). In other words, the marginal cost of duplicating a printed book is not zero. However, this does not hold true in the case of eBooks. If you made a copy of an eBook, you have two copies of it without putting in any substantial effort in doing this duplication. If you could make two copies, you could also make a thousand. And by virtue of this fact, you could also share it widely and make it available to everyone else at a lower or no cost.

The reason eBook publishers give for incorporating DRM within their publications is to thwart copyright violation. They argue that publishing eBooks without DRM would significantly impair their commerce and if people could just share the eBook around, no one would buy it.

But, …

The only reason to use DRM is because your customers want to do something and you don’t want them to do it. If someone else can offer your customers a player that does the stuff you hate and they love, they’ll buy it. So your DRM vanishes.

"What happens with digital rights management in the real world?" / The Guardian

The problem with DRM is also its overzealous classification of every user as a potential violator and further crippling and restriction of a user’s rights. When you buy an eBook on an ebook store, your purchase is specifically linked to that store. To continue to have access to the book, the store would need to remain alive and operational and in business. Having purchased the book on one store does not imply that you would own a copy of the same book in other eBook stores as well. Or you could shift your purchase from one store to another. So in case you decide to start using another eBook store, you either need to divide your books between both of them (and hope that both remain alive and operational) or you need to make your purchases on your preferred store again.

The same holds for videos, movies, TV shows, videos and games. How many DRM eBook platforms have you seen going out of business? What happened to your eBooks after they went offline? Did they provide you with a way to unlock and free your purchases?

At the same time, there is hardly any DRM technique that has not been cracked and there is hardly any DRM encumbered content that can not be unlocked. The “DRM protection” is only for the casual, not the determined. It can’t thwart the determined from unlocking the content from the DRM platform and using it for any purpose.

The question then becomes: If it is so easy to crack the DRM encryption, and if so many people do it and actively share the content on various peer-to-peer filesharing websites, what is the value of DRM? Isn’t it just nuisance value?

I feel most of us who use DRM content use it without being aware of the fact that DRM exists. We purchase the content because we can afford to purchase it and because access to it is very easy & convenient. The publisher sets a low barrier to entry here so they can motivate people to just purchase the content and become a part of the DRM platform that they might find difficult to leave because its convenient. The question of DRM only comes in later on if we want to share it, extract a part from the full content or do something that we might want to normally do with content that we “own”.

The fight against DRM will continue to be difficult as long as we place a value on this convenience of access to content over our rights to “own” it in the first place and our freedom to use it in ways that are mainstream and common in everyday life.

Specifically, streaming services eliminate and invert the whole question of ownership. They convert a storage problem (storing music on your computer’s hard drive) to a network problem (having the bandwidth to stream music from the Internet on-demand). They take what would be a very cost-effective, accessible and easy thing to do (being able to download and store music locally to play with whichever music player we want) and convert that into an unpleasant user experience (having to use the publisher’s or platform’s software to play the music), needlessly costly and imperfect (flaky bandwidth, high bandwidth costs). The only leveller here is the convenience of having any music you might need access to on your fingertips.

DRM is incompatible with Free Software

The users who are worst hit by DRM are users who choose to use Free Software on their devices and computers. Since, DRM is so closely locked in to the publisher’s or platform’s software (unless you have this software you can not use the content), you might have to put up with any deficiencies or bugs or irritations that the software might have in order to access the content.

When you use non-DRM content, you have the ability and freedom to choose the software you want to use to access the content. This content could be ebooks, music, videos or even games. With DRM content, you loose this freedom. Since the publisher of the content does not want to show you what they are doing to decrypt the content to make it accessible to you, they can not release the software with its source code. In fact, a lot of times, they completely leave out users of GNU/Linux and other Free Software operating sytems from having any access to the content.

Can you choose to reject DRM?

How closely tied is your lifestyle to DRMed content? What would you loose out if you chose not to use DRMed content? Is rejecting DRM sufficient to discourage publishers from adding DRM to their content? How soon will we have access to content which is not limited by DRM?

Does rejecting DRM exclude the arts from your life? Does rejecting DRM mean that you also exclude yourself from watch certain TV shows or listening to certain music or reading certain books? When does the advantage of rejecting DRM outweigh the disadvantage of choosing not to access various content?

Is rejecting DRM and choosing peer-to-peer filesharing an ethical choice? Or would the ethical choice be to reject such content altogether?

I feel that these are all personal judgements. We might feel motivated take a tough public stand in these matters but personally find it difficult to leave out certain types of entertainment from our lives.

What if the only way you had access to some music was via a DRM protected source and this music actually enabled you to be more productive… and this additional productivity enabled you to be a more prolific contributor to Free Software projects? Then would using DRM be a good enough trade-off? Is it such a simple choice to make?


Think about it. Make your choices carefully. Consider the wider implications of your choices. Consider how you strengthen the DRM economy by purchasing DRM content. Consider how you could contribute to the non-DRM economy by purchasing content from publishers who don’t use DRM.

Choices always exist. Choosing a printed book over a DRM-encrypted eBook might be inconvenient but its possible. Choosing to buy an non-encrypted DVD might be cumbersome and costly, but its still possible. Choosing to buy an audio CD or non-DRM digital music is another choice.

For more than 30 years, the Free Software movement has encourages users to forsake proprietary software and use and build Free Software in its place. There have always been arguments about “features not being available”, about “it not being good enough or easy enough” and so on. But that never stopped people from developing it, contributing to it, using it, improving it, writing about it or helping others to use it. And, hence today Free Software usage is more pervasive than ever. Today there is always a Free Software way of doing things. Today more people use GNU/Linux and Free Software without even realising it at times.

And hence, I feel, a world without DRM is also possible. The more we reject it, the weaker DRM becomes. The sooner we reject it, we invite authors and publishers and content creators to publish content using alternative means.

Consider. And care. I think that is a good start.

© 2018, Abhas Abhinav.

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