Bad Experiences with MLB’s DRM

The Joy of Sox has been writing about a problem with Major League Baseball’s DRM scheme. Boing Boing, Wired, Slashdot, and Techdirt have also picked up the story.

Apparently fans who purchased digital downloads from MLB have discovered that MLB has changed its DRM scheme.  Fans who downloaded complete games from MLB had to log in through an MLB web page to verify that the download in question was being viewed on the appropriate, licensed computer.  MLB has now removed this page, making those downloads unviewable.  Apparently MLB does not know when the problem will be fixed.  This means that those who purchased the downloads have been denied the benefits of their bargain.

This illustrates one of the most significant problems with DRM.  Consumers who can’t view their downloads have no effective self-help.  Circumventing DRM controlling access to a copyrighted work is generally illegal. Even if there were some legal basis for circumvention, consumers can’t accomplish it easily because it’s also illegal to sell technology that makes circumvention possible.  Assuming for the sake of argument that this legal state of affairs is unlikely to change, one wonders whether some kind of consumer protection action against MLB becomes the best possibility for remedying this situation.  If MLB sold these downloads with the promise that purchasers could always view them after complying with the DRM protocol, and then fails to make good on that promise, isn’t this garden variety consumer fraud?  If so, perhaps a consumer class action or state attorney general suit will be forthcoming.

6 thoughts on “Bad Experiences with MLB’s DRM

  1. “This illustrates one of the most significant problems with DRM. Consumers who can’t view their downloads have no effective self-help.” That’s certainly an annoyance for the consumer when things go wrong, but why is it a “significant problem”? Landlords have no effective self-help when tenants stop paying rent. I have no effective self-help if the New York Times suddenly decides to stop delivering our paper. There’s lots of situations where there’s no effective self-help; and given the potential for self-help to be abused or spiral out of control, maybe that’s a good thing.

  2. Bruce, I think that in situations like this the big issue is (as in Madison’s iPhone/iBrick entry) whether we really want a world where technology maximizes content owners’ control to the point where licensees need to make a federal case out of any situation where they have been denied the benefit of the bargain they made.

    As cases like this become more common, the wisdom of the Cohen/Burk DRM key escrow proposal appears all the more compelling.

  3. Well, stick with my New York Times example. Say there’s a newsbox down the street. And say that with a little jiggling, it opens right up. So in the past, when I’ve been deprived of my paper, I just go over and get one from the box. But due to increased thefts from boxes all over town, the Times has recently improved its box locks.

    Do we want to live in a world in which technology maximizes newspaper vendors’ control to the point where subscribers need to make a small claims court case out of any situation where they have been denied the benefit of the bargain they have made? Well, *I* don’t want to live in such a world, because I don’t run a newspaper. But I think *we* do.

  4. “Well, stick with my New York Times example. Say there’s a newsbox down the street. And say that with a little jiggling, it opens right up. So in the past, when I’ve been deprived of my paper, I just go over and get one from the box. But due to increased thefts from boxes all over town, the Times has recently improved its box locks.”

    The problem here is that your analogy isn’t analogous. The MLB situation isn’t analogous to locked news racks it is analogous to the paper you just **bought** suddenly becoming completely blank–without notice or remedy. This is about media you have purchased being retroactively repossessed without cause. This is about de-facto fraud on the seller’s part for “selling” a video that is supposed to play for an unlimited time but doesn’t.

  5. Bruce,
    Your New York Times analogy is flawed. Perhaps I can help. In your analogy, you are depriving the New York Times of a paper that they can sell for profit, which does not occur with an electronic copy.
    Say the New York Times sold you a year subscription to their newspaper. In order to avoid theft, they require that you pick up the paper at a local office downtown. Then, they close that office, and provide you with no other way to obtain the paper. You now feel justified in reading your neighbor’s paper, after he has finished and with his approval. Then someone claims that reading that newspaper is like robbing a liquor store…

  6. The issue here is whether taking some action that happens to deprive someone of an effective ability to engage in self-help is a “significant [legal or social] problem.” I say it’s not; this sort of thing happens all the time in other contexts and we are not worried about it. Suntu, you may have an analogy that gets at what troubles *you* about DRM — the fact that what was once a consumer’s effective unfettered domain over a physical object is not so unfettered anymore. Such limits interfere with the average person’s ingrained nonlegal ideology of property rights over “things.” But that doesn’t have anything to do with whether taking away effective self-help is a “significant problem.” One situation involves a tangible good (maybe), and one involves a service, but that’s not a relevant difference. In the newspaper example, I’ve paid for a service, and I’m being deprived of what I’ve paid for — that service. In the MLB example, I’ve paid for access to content, and I’m being deprived of access to content. The question is whether technological barriers that happen to impinge upon self-help are, from a societal point of view, a problem in either case.

    SkeptiSys, I don’t think the fact that the self-help remedy in my hypothetical involves taking a physical object is a relevant difference either. For one thing, while I’ve deprived the NYT of a sale from the newsbox, they’ve gained an opportunity to make such an additional sale (or at least save on production and distribution costs) by not delivering my copy to my door. Second, a “lost sale” in the newspaper hypo is unlikely, unless the box sells out. I picked the hypothetical because it illustrates a situation in which a company may upgrade its security measures to prevent thefts in a way that interferes with (mostly) harmless efforts at self-help by existing customers. Is that a problem? Sure, for some people. A “significant problem”? No.

Comments are closed.