Alternatives to DRM? [Updated: YouTube’s perfect storm]

September 5th, 2006 | by ian |

Google has bought YouTube for 1.6+ Billion and there is a hell of a debate going on surrounding Mark Cuban’s criticism of Google’s purchase and the actual value of YouTube given that it does not use DRM, therefore requiring copyright holders to monitor the site themselves and constantly ask them to take down materials that are in violation.

I would argue that this is a good situation, creating a perfect storm over copyright and forcing the copyright issues into more prominent view and making it more likely that rational folks will come up with balanced solutions, as opposed to attempting to maintain a maladaptive status quo.

The MPAA wants to “extract” value using DRM. Meanwhile the latest Microsoft DRM is cracked. Where is this going?

Interesting discussion on DRM in the WSJ Online between Fritz Attaway of the MPAA and and lawyer Wendy Seltzer.

Mr. Attaway responds: Wendy — I think we are getting to the philosophical heart of the issue. You want to be able to take for free the intellectual property others invested their time, talent and money to create. I think those creators ought to be able to control, within reasonable bounds, how their property is used, and certainly to be able to extract the economic value of their investment.

Ms. Seltzer responds: Fritz, I have not been asking for media free of charge. I have been asking for it free of usage and interoperability restrictions that go beyond copyright. The difference is critical — I fully support a market in which creators are compensated for their works, but not one in which a creative industry can monopolize cultural reference and the technology around its works.

I am amazed that Fritz uses the term “extraction,” it says so much about their approach to the consumer and to the artists and creators. I am also amazed that he doesn’t seem to have haven’t caught on to the distinction between freedom and “free as in beer.” To be fair to the MPAA however there do appear to be others in the organization who admit that the problems of digital distribution are not clearly solved by DRM. Unfortunately the strategy thus far is heavy on tracking user behaviour on P2P networks and resorting to (petty) litigation, which is clearly not a winning strategy in the war against media piracy.

Meanwhile in other news Wired reports that Microsoft’s Windows Media DRM 10 has been cracked, removing any real limitations on a new generation of Microsoft WMA/V based services and showing once again that Cory was right in his now-famous presentation to Microsoft in which he explained:

That DRM systems don’t work
That DRM systems are bad for society
That DRM systems are bad for business
That DRM systems are bad for artists
That DRM is a bad business-move for MSFT

So what are the alternatives to DRM?

Well a Google search for “alternatives to DRM” doesn’t turn up much…

There are new approaches to the digital fanbase being adopted in the corners of the music industry, such as the Canadian label Nettwerk famous for joining in the fight against the RIAA’s frivolous lawsuits. Wired has an excellent article about Nettwerk. They are changing the label’s role in how the business interaction between artists and fans takes place, and purposefully avoid DRM to ensure that their fans have the option of playing the music they purchase on any device they want to. This is good progress and while providing leadership by example it doesn’t provide a larger framework for distribution. Which is the problem in the first place.

It is possible that the RIAA and MPAA won’t have a role if they continue to focus on inventing the next physical-media-bound format. Already artists and fans are finding ways to work around them. It is clear that they very much want to restrict the freedom of customers ability to enjoy the music or movies they purchase by device and geographical area. This is less of a copyright measure, rather a control play to “extract” more money from consumers.

I think they need to focus on:
1) legally pursuing the real media pirates who distribute and make money from illegally copied materials
2) providing an valuable alternative distribution system to existing DRM based (iTunes) or P2P networks

Such an alternative system could include P2P based distribution software which in return for allows the consumer to legally download music with a universal playability licence allowing music to be played on all personal devices. The consumer in return allows the software to track and report on downloads and uses micropayments or something akin to what radio uses to compensate the artists and rightsholders accordingly.

In fact there is a fair amount of research that has been done on compensation alternatives. For some excellent discussions see the Lessig blog. The problem of course is the industry moving from point A to point B. There are too many vested interests in holding on to the status quo, no matter how untenable.

Some experiments in alternatives are well under way such as an ISP in the UK whose subscribers are allowed to share Sony music, built into the service. Hopefully we will see more experimentation so we find practical solutions and and a light at the end of the dark tunnel of digital media confusion.

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