Why DRM is Bad: The Law of Unintended Consequences

DRM is software used to restrict your access to your files.  And it is one of the worst ideas of the modern world. To quote Cory Doctorow in his book Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town,

No one woke up this morning and said, “Damn, I wish there was a way to do less with my books, movies and music.”

It was intended, originally, to keep copyright laws working.  Before about the 20th century, copying another work was an arduous process (no computers, no recording mechanisms, etc), so restricting the copying of an item (like a song, or a picture) was most easily done at the stage of copying.

All that has changed.  Now we have computers, cheap cameras, video recorders, scanners, recorders, and so on.  It’s suddenly very hard to keep people from copying.

The Law of Unintended Consequenses states:

Any intervention in a complex system may or may not have the intended result, but will inevitably create unanticipated and often undesirable outcomes.

Basically, that means “Anything you do might work, but it will always do something you didn’t expect or want.”

The attempt to keep copyright working in today’s day and age is DRM, which keeps you from copying and using files how you want.  And it’s not just constricted to copying, either:

  • In July of 2009 Amazon deleted copies of two books from Kindles, as the books were illegally placed in the Amazon ebook store.  Ironically, they were Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, both by George Orwell.Now, assume a leaked copy of a secret eight Harry Potter book (of which there are in fact rumors) is bound by an individual and placed in Borders.  You walk in and want to buy it — you don’t know that it shouldn’t be there.  The teller, who doesn’t really like fantasy, doesn’t know that they shouldn’t be selling that book.  Later that night, it is revealed to the manager that this book was sold.  Some of his workers break into your house, take the book (you had already been reading it; you were about halfway through) and leave.  I believe you would be sufficiently enraged.  What’s to stop Amazon from deleting or editing any book you have on a Kindle?
  • DRM is on many DVDs in order to keep the market from getting too segmented — spread out over too many demographics, which is a huge hassle (if I read correctly) for marketing and the company in general.  Now, assume you just bought a new DVD.  You’re going on vacation to Japan soon, and haven’t yet had a chance to watch it.  You bring with you, to watch in the hotel one night.  Woops, too bad!  Many DVDs only work in players manufactured for the same country the DVD was manufactured in, and possibly a few others.
  • Or maybe, while in Japan, you buy some anime DVD to watch at home. Too bad, so sad.
  • Don’t like Safari on the iPhone?  Want, perhaps, Opera Mini?  Oh wait — everything on the iPhone is slathered in DRM.  You can’t use third-party software not from the App Store, and Opera Mini hasn’t been accepted yet.  So, it does get accepted, then an update changes its code some.  Apple doesn’t like the new version.  Oh, sorry, it appears Opera Mini isn’t on your iPhone anymore.  Download a vehemently anti-Apple article on your iPad?  Nope.  It’s deleted.  They can do that, if they want.  At any time.  To any one.  On any thing.
  • So, you just downloaded this ebook and man, is it great.  You want your friend to read it, but he doesn’t want to buy it.  “Okay,” you think, “I’ll just send it to him.”  Woops, sorry!  You can’t share your files if their DRM says so.
  • Any song you download from iTunes has DRM on it. You can only have iTunes accounts on three computers, and those songs are very restricted. This is doubly stupid. Not only is DRM a bad idea, but each of those songs is available on CD without DRM. iTunes DRM’s its songs because the big music companies say so, but then they release unlocked CDs (which is a great thing) that you can rip.

And get this — DRM doesn’t, for the most part, do a thing except annoy people.  Pirates have cracked every DRM scheme out there.  Any file with DRM is available on BitTorrent without it.

Help spread awareness:  DRM is bad.

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