DRM in the 21st century

04 Nov 2006

Last month saw the launch of the first annual Anti-DRM Day. The event, coordinated by the Free Software Foundation's anti-DRM initiative, Defective By Design, was intended to raise awareness of digital rights management issues that, in their view, hurt digital media by imposing unreasonable limits on usage.

Plenty of events were planned - from Web-based actions like posting anti-DRM banners and DRM-free music and video links to protests at Apple Computer outlets and - my personal favorite - attempting to get arrested for violating your own copyright. Many were carried out, but whether the event was a success is open to debate. If, for example, the main goal was to raise awareness via Big Media coverage - and if Google News is any benchmark - then Anti-DRM Day may have been largely a case of preaching to the choir.

On the other hand, the fact that the event was even held - or thought of - signifies a growing resentment from media consumers of DRM technologies that, taken to extremes, make digital media less attractive. Media companies are rightfully concerned about piracy, but the initial knee-jerk hard line of zero-tolerance policies, the declaration that purchased media is still the property of the copyright holders, and asserting the right to dictate and limit how, when, where and on what device consumers may view or listen to content - even when they've paid for it - is not winning over the customer base.

This is partly because most music fans think it's lame to download tracks from iTunes only to discover later that they don't work on certain media players, or that you can transfer the tracks so many times before they stop working (which is like buying a new CD player that makes your entire CD collection obsolete). But it's also because media fans - especially the younger ones - are not consuming media the way our generation did.

Passive no more
Media consumption is increasingly becoming a social, viral and interactive experience - not just by time-shifting, SMS voting or using a music CD or DVD to unlock a Web site for bonus material, but by manipulating the media itself and sharing the results. Mash-ups of music and video - adding Beyonc‾vocals to a Nirvana track, or dubbing Darth Vader scenes from Star Wars with lines spoken by James Earl Jones in other films - are becoming increasingly commonplace.

This is media consumption in the 21st century, whether the media industry likes it or not. But there are signs they're learning to like it.

For example, music artists like Beck, Barenaked Ladies, Depeche Mode and New Order have been allowing fans to resequence albums, remix their songs and post the results wherever they like. Fox Atomic - the recently launched youth-oriented film division of Fox Entertainment - has a Web site feature called The Blender that allows fans access to mash-up select Fox video footage.

A potentially more significant watermark in the copyright/DRM wars may be the YouTube phenomenon.

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