Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Things That Make You Go "Hmmm..."

Priceless quote of the week (courtesy of Reuters):
"I've got one revenue stream that a proctologist would have a hard time analyzing. It's not pretty."
- Andrew Lack, CEO of Sony BMG music
I truly can't tell if this is meant to imply that:
A.) He has money coming out of his respective area of interest to the field of proctology or
B) The way that his company treats the customer is nearly as conceptually pleasant as flexible sigmoidoscopy

Regardless, this affords the opportunity for a short rant on the music industry, copy-proctected compact discs, and the whole concept of "DRM" and why it is a complete misnomer. During this discussion, keep in mind that Sony BMG is one of the supporters of a version of CD Audio copy protection that attempts to "bundle" a DRM-encumbered WMA-formatted file for each song on the "CD." I put CD in quotes because these discs do not qualify for the "Compact Disc - Digital Audio" logo that is granted to discs that comply with the original Sony-Philips Redbook standard.

Because no alternative is offered, I actually own a couple of these discs from various manufacturers. Although they tend to work on most audio-only devices and despite the fact that the protection is fairly easily circumvented, it is technically a violation of the US Digtial Millenium Copyright Act to perform the circumvention. The fact that said circumvention would merely restore the expectations of fair use* (a.k.a. consumer copying) that have accompanied Compact Disc - Digital Audio media since the inception of the standard has no bearing in the intrepretation of the statute. In fact, although the statute draws distinctions between "access" restrictions and "rights" restrictions (with greater tolerance for fair use given to non-infringing circumvention of rights restrictions), current case law has held that a DRM scheme that performs both functions is subject to both anticircumvention clauses -- resulting in a "least privilege" model for the purchaser. To further add to the rich tapestry of Sony-centric irony (the Betamax decision didn't favor the copyright holder), the provided WMA files are not compatible with the "Network Walkman" line of portable music players. In my mind, this type of incompatibility is only the most trivial of several problems that apply to all current and prospective DRM systems.

In order to further expand on this rant, let me first provide my definition for DRM, namely Digital Restrictions Management. I object to the use of the word "Rights" in this context because it can only properly be applied to the supplier -- and not to the purchaser. No current or publicly-proposed DRM technique is based on an open standard. So, even if the initial terms of the restrictions are accepted, there remains no guarantee that the DRM'ed file will remain useful to the purchaser in perpetuity. To me, this is every bit as troubling as the fact that current DRM technologies inherently eliminate the portability that has always been an intrinsic part of the media-purchasing experience.

When you purchase the forms of mass-market media that have been made available for the past several decades (VHS video cassette, audio cassette, CD-DA, and to a lesser extent DVD), you can rest assured that your purchase is compatible with any of a class of compatible consumer electronics and/or personal computing devices. You can play your tape or disc in a friend's player, and can buy a new player decades later that still supports the media. With tapes and CD-DA discs, you can make legal personal backup copies, and have access to the content for other non-commercial re-use purposes that have historically been protected. DVD added encryption and regionalization to the mix. These techniques limited the ability to re-use the content, and restricted the portability to pre-defined geographical regions.

DRM further limits media portabilty to a single device or a set number of devices. Thus, if you want to let your friend hear the new song that you "bought," they have to listen on your playback device or your computer. Be sure to ask your DRM vendor how to recover your "rights" in the event that your playback device and/or computer is lost, stolen, or otherwise rendered unusable. At the same time, ask yourself if you will be able to procure or "authorize" a compatible playback device in the future. Another good rhetorical question: What happens to the file format if the vendor exits the media-distribution business, whether intentionally or otherwise?

I could continue almost indefinitely, but will instead point you to that little EFF link on the right, and suggest that you look at their DRM info. Opinions vary, but I prefer to get what I pay for...
(I'm still waiting for the Sony Consumer Electronics vs. Sony BMG Music lawsuit -- with the obligitory amicus briefs filed by Sony Online in support of the plaintiff and Sony/Columbia Pictures in support of the defendant. Oops, that's the beginning of a completely different rant about content creation, content distribution, and media ownership in general. Stay tuned...)

*: Audio from Raymond Ku's presentation at the Berkeley DRM conference, Feb. 27 - Mar. 1, 2003.