David Berlind's How the portable player tail wags the DRM and operating system dogs (ZDNet, April 25, 2006) is a good indicator of why I haven't written much about DRM here lately.
I started writing about DRM last year when I realized its use in music CD's threatened my lifelong music collecting hobby. Now that I've pretty much given up buying music, DRM has become a spectator sport for me.
In Berlind's discussion of Real, Microsoft, and Apple, he points out the role that DRM plays in supporting a (theoretically) closed hardware/software infrastructure that a limited number of participants manage in order to control music distribution and access. (I say "theoretically" because DRM does not stop large scale piracy.) In this system intellectual property rights (and artistic creativity) take a back seat to exclusion of non-participants from the system. The whole concept of copyright's idea of advancing "science and the useful arts" seems almost quaint given the inherently anti-competitive and exclusionary nature of today's evolving media supply and delivery chains.
While open and free distribution of digital music may struggle on in its current form, the legislation-enabled lockdown of video is well on its way. Already we see the strangling of technological innovation by requiring that video signals be degraded if displayed on industry-disapproved display devices. Some legislators seem willing to do the bidding of the industry giants to protect their monopolies, all in the guise of "anti-piracy." But what the legislators are really doing is protecting outmoded business models and supply chains, and preventing technological innovation. In this situation, DRM is secondary and just another tool in building a closed system.
It reminds me of the war between 45rpm and 33 1/3 rpm phonograph records. Initially incompatible, eventually players and adapters were introduced that enabled the two record formats to be played interchangeably on the same device. Everyone benefited -- the artists, the customer, the record companies.
That would never happen today. Congress would pass a law making it illegal to sell multi-speed record changers. Stores caught selling those little yellow adapter discs that you put into the hole in the 45rpm record would be slapped with a "cease and desist" letter.
Back to Berlind's article. He talks about the portable players that form an important part of the delivery chain for media (e.g., the iPod). Portable players are fed by compatible collections of DRM enabled media that will play only on a specific set of devices. These portable devices are really small, specialized computers designed to communicate with systems that meet specific technical criteria. In that respect they are not unlike the ubiquitous set top boxes we have today in cable TV distribution systems. Those, too, are produced by legislatively protected monopolies that have a vested interest in anticompetitive pricing practices.
In both cases -- music and cable TV -- we see legislation being used to restrict interchangeability and competition. In both cases, an "anti-piracy" theme is used as a justification for restricting the operation of a free market.
There's probably no way around using the legislative arena to combat such practices. Failing that, other tactics include developing an underground economy in unrestricted media, or just refusing to purchase restricted media.