Sunday, August 29, 2004

Digital media -- knowing your rights

Below if a very useful consumer guide to DRM was published online by the Baltimore Sun (link to the article here), presumably syndicated from the Wall Street Journal.

Technology is changing how much control users have over the music, movies, games they buy

By Nick Wingfield

The Wall Street Journal August 23, 2004

Buying music used to be simple: You coughed up $14 or so for a CD, and as long as you didn't bootleg it or charge crowds of people to listen to it, the music was yours. The Internet and other technologies are changing all that, opening up a slew of new options for purchasing entertainment, be it music or movies or games. That's a good thing.

The not-so-good thing is that in the next few years, the sheer number and complexity of those new options are likely to bewilder many consumers. You may no longer be able to "own a movie" or "own a CD," at least in the sense those phrases have been used. Instead, you will merely have "rights" to the content, enforced by technology. Those rights might change over time, even at the whim of the music or movie company you get them from.

The technology allowing all this is called digital-rights management, or DRM. It's a kind of invisible software lock securely bolted onto a song or movie. Being software, it's a very flexible sort of lock. A music label, for example, might let you download a song free and then listen to it for a day, but then require you to pay up to keep on listening.

For a taste of what DRM might bring, check out Apple Computer's iTunes Music Store, which sells songs for 99 cents.

ITunes COMES with a DRM system that prevents customers from playing those songs on more than five computers, or burning more than seven identical lists of songs onto CDs. (Before you can play a song on a sixth computer, you need to use the DRM software to "de-authorize" it from one of the first five machines.)

Of course, no such technical limits exist on normal music CDs, though recording companies, especially in Europe, are experimenting with restrictions.

Some iTunes users are grumbling. In June, science-fiction writer Cory Doctorow gave a talk critical of DRM technology in which he related how he hit Apple's limit on the number of computers he could play his music on -- three machines at the time.

One computer was in the shop, another was at his parents' house and a third was a defective machine he had returned to Apple -- without first remembering to de-authorize his music on it so he could play it on another machine. As a result, Mr. Doctorow said he was unable to listen to hundreds of dollars worth of music.

Apple says such problems aren't common, especially since the company upped its computer limit to five in April. But that change itself was a lesson in the power of DRM: Apple's increase was retroactive, and applied to all songs, not just those purchased after the change took effect.
In this case, Apple gave users more liberal rights. (It also curbed some types of CD burning, but the change didn't apply to previously purchased music.) However, there's nothing preventing Apple from making its DRM retroactively more restrictive -- though the company says that's unlikely.
Apple set up the iTunes DRM as a way of getting the big labels -- badly burned by the original Napster -- comfortable with music online. It deserves credit for helping legalize digital music: iTunes has had more than 100 million downloads.

And even with the restrictions, iTunes customers more or less "own" their music once they've bought it. By contrast, consumers only "rent" music at subscription services like RealNetworks's Rhapsody, which typically charge a $10 or so monthly fee for playing as much music as customers want.

The catch: Rhapsody subscribers can play their songs only on their PCs, not portable audio players, and only as long as they keep paying their monthly bills. That's the main reason these "rental" sites haven't done as well as iTunes. (By the end of this year, a new version of Microsoft's DRM will allow subscription users to transfer content to portable players.)
It's not just Internet music that's getting more complicated. Most of today's movie DVDs contain restrictions that prevent users from copying them, or playing them in a different geographic region from where they are bought.

But Hollywood studios, along with technology and consumer electronic companies, are working on a new generation of DVDs that will, in addition to holding more data for high-definition movies, also have a much more flexible DRM. As a result, different studios might end up imposing different DVD restrictions. You may, for instance, be able to make a copy of the "Toy Story 4" DVD for your laptop -- but not do the same thing with "Charlie's Angels 5." Those variations will likely require some form of labeling on DVDs so consumers will know what they're getting, according to companies involved in planning them.

Alan Davidson, associate director of the civil liberties group Center for Democracy and Technology, says he isn't opposed to DRM, but worries consumers may not understand what rights come with content they purchase. "DRM underscores the point that consumers are going to have to become a lot more sophisticated about what they're buying," he says.