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DRM and the Design of Things

Cory Doctorow has an impassioned post at BoingBoing on why DRM is not about “protecting” content so that it can be released online cheaply and quickly. He’s right, and he’s said this before. DRM is about hooking the consumer to a technology that can be controlled, along with complementary content, by upstream copyright owners. If you understand the concept of bait-and-switch, then you understand DRM.

We should be careful, though, with this part of his argument:

DRM isn’t protection from piracy. DRM is protection from competition. If you believe that “much as we might want it to be otherwise, content owners still call most of the shots,” then you believe that the guy who makes the record should get a veto over the design of the record player. That the film studios should be able to ban the VCR. That the recording industry should have been able to shove SDMI down all our throats and make MP3 disappear.

This is a profoundly ahistorical proposition. Never in the history of media from the dawn of the printing press right up to the invention of the DVD have we afforded this kind of privilege to incumbent rightsholders. Quite the contrary: at every turn, brave entrepreneurs have engaged in “piracy” of copyrighted works (through devices like the record player, radio, cable television and VCR) and kept at it until the law caught up with the technology.

The point to be careful about is this. Someone does get to design the record player (and the VCR, and the DVD player, etc., etc.), and we should be skeptical about arguments that this someone should be anyone other than the firm or industry sector that sells it, either alone or in tandem with “content producers.” I’m not so concerned about abstract “autonomy” arguments as I am with who’s going to do the designing and how they’re going to know what to design if the design job is assigned to someone else. Who is going to step up? Congress? Back track record there (see the Audio Home Recording Act of 1992). The courts? They’ve made one good call — the Sony Betamax case; some bad ones (Napster, Aimster); and there is one pending (Grokster). W3C? EFF? Those institutions, and all of us, have roles to play in the design of things, both as they’re produced and as they’re used (and reused). Those roles are still getting sorted out. This is a brave new world; this design step is an important one; and we should take care to work through it carefully when we build arguments about architecture. We don’t need to invoke it, I think, in order to make the case that DRM is bad for content producers as well as for consumers.