I confess, I’ve never bought anything from iTunes. I don’t own an iPod, an MP3 player, or even have a CD player in my car. I mostly listen to music on my computer, occasionally disrupting the neighbors by blasting Muse at 3:00 a.m.

I had never before considered purchasing anything from iTunes for one reason: DRM (or digital rights management), an acronym that has taken on Orwellian significance in online communities. It elicits everything from utter hatred to disinterested acceptance. Many web commentators, like Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing, have made it part of their life’s mission to rid it from all digital media, including games, DVDs and downloadable videos. While I’m not quite as vicious as all that, I wouldn’t ever buy something that was DRM’d.

For those not in the know, DRM is a technological lock on a digital file that prevents it from being used in a way that the content provider (like a record label) wants it to be used. In the case of Apple’s DRM – FairPlay – it restricts you from playing the music in anything but iTunes or on iPods, and from transferring it to more than five computers. To change the computers, one has to go through the task of de-authorizing the music and reauthorizing it on another system.

There is a workaround whereby you could burn the track onto CD and then rip it back in an unprotected format, like MP3, but this degrades the sound quality and is a hassle, even if you had a CD-RW to burn with over and over again.

Then, on April 2, industry-changing words were uttered by a music executive from one of the most lawsuit-happy companies under the RIAA umbrella: “We have to trust consumers.”

EMI became the first of the “Big Four” music labels (made up of Warner, EMI, Universal and Sony) to drop DRM from their catalog entirely. And, not only that, but Apple would be selling these DRM-free tracks at a higher bit rate, making it the best-sounding offering in the online music arena (save for some rare “lossless” sellers like Magnatune).

My first reaction to this news was utter and complete shock. Having been researching this issue since I first heard the term “DRM” uttered back in 2003, as well as the labels’ insistence that it was necessary to protect the future of content from piracy, it came as a surprise that a major label would suddenly decide to just drop that protection entirely.

I suppose this was a long time coming, though. After all, DRM is completely ineffective. For example, music that appears on iTunes, even exclusively encoded with DRM since its inception, ends up on the P2P networks within 180 seconds. Despite insistence that it’s necessary and only fair from the RIAA, MPAA, BSA and advocate organizations like the PFF (Progress and Freedom Foundation), it didn’t change the fact of its uselessness.

After hearing about EMI’s decision, the PFF’s James DeLong, a longtime advocate of using DRM to weed out “free riders” from not paying, wrote, “If the new format quickly turns up on the P2P sites, and if sales start off high and then fade away as the songs spread virally from iPod to iPod, then we will have learned something.” This, of course, is silly. DRM has never prevented files from ending up on P2P networks. Even iTunes-exclusive content that has been DRM’d from the get-go ends up on the networks. The fact there’s another format to share won’t really change that, and it can only increase sales for the struggling EMI. For instance, I wouldn’t feel any qualms about purchasing from them.

There was something curious that happened during the Apple/EMI announcement: Steve Jobs, founder and head of Apple, had to back-peddle a bit. Asked by a questioner whether Jobs would now advocate for DRM-free videos, like those from Disney, of which he owns a major stake, he responded, “Video is pretty different than music right now because the video industry does not distribute 90 percent of their content DRM free; never has, and so I think they are in a pretty different situation and so I wouldn’t hold the two in parallel at all.”

This is a change from his “Thoughts on Music” letter where he stated, pointblank, “DRMs haven’t worked, and may never work, to halt music piracy.” Same for video, Steve – both Blu-ray and HD-DVD, two formats built with DRM in mind, have recently been cracked.

But what about games? Game-makers have been some of the ones most concerned with piracy, and have often implemented very complex and onerous systems in order to try and prevent it. The nastiest of which is StarForce, which Allen Varney covered in great depth in a past issue. To summarize, StarForce, a product of some dark PC magic in Russia, created great problems for gamers, sometimes making their CD/DVD drives utterly useless. The copy protection dug its claws into their systems and refused to let go. And the company that produces it, Protection Technology, is quite sleazy. When Galactic Civilizations 2 went without DRM or copy protection of any kind, PT railed against them for being foolish and even posted links from torrent networks that could let people illegally download it.

Thankfully, most companies shirk using StarForce nowadays but are still left with trying to make DRM work for them. Valve tied Half-Life 2 to their Steam platform, requiring an online activation before people could play it. Often Steam wouldn’t load, or it would take an interminable amount of time to auto-update. Despite the protection, however, HL2 arrived on the P2P and torrent networks the day of release, available without the restriction of Steam.

Looking up similarly protected games, like those with StarForce, turned up the same type of situation. Despite what the developers are trying, it hasn’t worked.

I sympathize with them, I really do. Working in film and music, I understand how difficult it can be to see something you slaved over for months or years be distributed freely without your consent. On this, James DeLong and I see eye to eye: If you want to play it, listen to it or watch it, you should pay for it. While there’s a certain satisfaction in giving the finger to The Man, you’re also giving that finger to everyone who works under him. Even then, there usually isn’t a Man to battle, because you’re harming indie studios and directors. Having worked on several film sets in different capacities, I know what a complicated, expensive and taxing endeavor it can be. To see all that time and energy disappear in a melange of torrents is heartbreaking.

Ragnar Tornquist, creator of The Longest Journey, wrote on his blog, “I’m not defending StarForce, but there’s no way we can justify the cost of making a single-player PC game without mechanisms in place to battle piracy – we’ll just lose money.” Unfortunately, DRM and copy protection don’t seem to be accomplishing the task of combating piracy. As Steve Jobs wrote, “there are many smart people in the world, some with a lot of time on their hands, who love to discover such secrets and publish a way for everyone to get free (and stolen) music.” Or movies. Or software.

And the arguments for piracy don’t really fly either, I’m afraid. Increased exposure? Maybe, but more likely just a bunch of people getting stuff for free. It doesn’t make an impact? I think it does. As an example, I was in a group that released an album on CD Baby, iTunes, Amazon and several other places. This was a Creative Commons group, which allows artists to release their work freely to be downloaded, shared and remixed among people without restriction. It lasted for awhile without being ripped, selling quite well, but as soon as someone did, sales petered off to mostly nothing. These two events were certainly not unrelated. Imagine walking into work for two weeks and then, when it comes time for your paycheck, to be given a shrug and a promise that your work was given more exposure.

I’m not going to sit here and tell you I’m perfect in this regard; far from it. I was there with Napster in its heyday, right alongside everyone else booing Metallica and wishing horrible diseases on Lars Ulrich. It’s been a slow, gradual realization, but people deserve to be paid for their hard work and not have it indiscriminately posted and downloaded.

But DRM is not the answer. It only frustrates and angers legitimate consumers who have already purchased the content. But, if you must, why not take a note from Steve Jobs and EMI and offer DRM and DRM-free versions of your movies and games? Give people a choice. Who knows, it might just be the thing that makes you stand above the rest.

Tom Rhodes is a writer and filmmaker currently living in Ohio. He can be reached through Tom [dot] Rhod [at] Gmail [dot] com.

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