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DRM For Dummies (Like Me)


I have an oddly associative brain. Whenever I read the capitalized acronym DRM my thoughts are accompanied by audio traces of the Blind Boys of Alabama singing 'pa rum pa pum pum', the catchy funereal hook from their cover of a favorite Christmas carol.

Honestly, I can't help it, as Marlene Deitrich once said. It's just what happens. DRM looks and sounds like drum, I guess. There it goes again.

Strangely enough, DRM can be understood as a direct counterpoint to the message of 'Little Drummer Boy', a song from 1958 about the invaluable and priceless, but also inexpensive gift of performing sincere and soulful music just as these southern gentlemen do.

DRM, on the other hand, is mostly about money, and about the clash between two perspectives: business and culture. These two ferociously independent human pursuits are all too often forced together in conceptual oxymorons like that of 'the music industry', a business that sells copies of pre-recorded music.

But, to be precise, music is actually a latecomer to DRM technology. DRM was first invented in 1996 as a locking device to prevent illegal copies of video DVDs. Digitized music files didn't start using DRM technologies until 2002.

Why did they start?

The purpose of all Digital Rights Mangement systems is to prevent 'digital piracy', an industry term for what pre-recorded music lovers laughingly call 'ripping' or making copies of digital music files.

DRM is an umbrella term for a slurry of techniques to prevent selfish, greedy, insatiable music and video lovers like me from making many free copies of songs, movies and eBooks in order to listen to, watch or read them willy-nilly and then pass them on to friends, loved ones and even complete strangers through file sharing and bit-torrent programs over the Internet.

DRM attempts to protect the income of corporate 'citizens' who own the rights to make and sell copies. It is a protectionist attempt to safeguard an outmoded business model by corporations who don't yet understand that technological innovation has eroded the way they made money.

The problem is DRM doesn't work very well.

As far as music CDs go, those protected by DRM are sometimes unplayable on CD machines and they can also make computers vulnerable or cause them to crash. If you've ever tried to play a good disk on a car stereo and couldn't, DRM is to blame.

Strangely, no DRM system is really very cost-effective. Copying can no longer be stopped, and, in fact, upgrading DRM systems has been a substantial and regular expense for music companies since code-crackers just love to bust them open. Apparently, many people feel that they have the right to copy any disk they've already paid for as many times as they want. Go figure. When DRM systems attempted to prevent such copying, the crackers got busy.

Well, this month, life for MP3 downloaders just got a lot easier.

Although Napster still uses DRM to protect downloading by subscription, Amazon.com has now opened an online music store offering DRM-free copies of music from over 12,000 labels. Amazon's move followed iTunes decision to offer EMI's full catalog to their customers without any DRM (such as Apple's 'Fair Play') protection. Steve Jobs estimates that half of the iTunes catalog (2.5 million songs) will be DRM-free by year's end.

Don't be surprised at this about-face. It's inevitable, really, since the disk format which DRM was invented to protect is now in its death-throws. Yes, data disks are slipping slowly into the night, and 'digital convergence' is taking place in the entertainment industry. Oh sure, CDs and CD manufacturers will be with us for years, but they've begun a tailspin of decline. Obsolescence will overtake them as surely as it caught up to sliderules, pinball, the walkman and the 8-track tape...

Gradually, everything entertaining is becoming a digital information signal, and --quietly and surely-- these signals are moving over to digital downloads from the Internet. Did you notice music stores have already disappeared? Well, video stores will likely follow them sometime next year. Perhaps, as Philip E. Meza eloquently suggested last month in The San Francisco Chronicle, entertainment, like information, wants to be free.

For now, DRM still exists mainly in uses applied to eBooks (E-DRM) and streaming video. Microsoft's Vista contains a sophisticated DRM that prevents unauthorized content from playing or being recorded, but this may change. Music is leading the way for these other formats because digital song files are small and easy to download. YouTube is already making free video content available over the Internet for use on fledgling 'third screens'.

From my perspective, I love the idea of music, film and book files whipping around the world more freely in order to animate and enrich people's lives. I think only good will come of it. But then, I see the Internet as a vast organic cultural force, much more dynamic and vital even than Google's image of it as a super-library.

My Internet is like a coral reef expanding from this point in human history into a limitless future (provided, of course, that we get our act together and stop killing the planet). Its object is to make accessible the sum of human experience as it is layered, textured and enlarged with each new generation. All films, all music, all books, all images, all knowledge, all culture...anything that has survived until now and everything that comes after this date will one day be available to all people wherever they are in any language at any time. Day or night.

It's really something for us insomniacs to look forward to.

Meanwhile check out the Blind Boys of Alabama online where many songs are now freely available for download without D-R-M.

...ra rum pa pum pum...