"Free Floating Hostility" - The advent of DRM

When George Carlin was a budding stand-up comic, he used to be able to stick to a topic and roll with it. As his skits matured, he started to take on shorter rants. By the time his 1996 album Back in Town was released, he had condensed a myriad of disjointed thoughts into one short burst entitled "Free Floating Hostility." The comic and acerbic rhetoric jumped all over the place - much like the way the media industries began to treat copy protection and methods.

Though there was little that could be done to protect analogue media, the digital age provided a whole new world of opportunities. Since CDs and DVDs were digital media, they could have the benefit of other computer files - lossless reproduction. Fortunately, they could also have another computer benefit - encryption that could be decoded on-the-fly. And thus, DRM was born.

The first big DRM effort was region encoding. If anyone has a good reason for the existance of this aside from to prevent grey-market price reduction, I'm all ears. Along with region coding came Content Scrambling, or CSS. Though DVDs have gone through a couple of other methods, these are the only two still widely used.

In music, DRM took a different direction - at first, there was little to be done about it at all. CD players had been out too long to make discs carry any sort of bona fide copy protection, or there'd be a chance older players couldn't run the disc. As the internet grew and music moved off of the disc, however, DRM began to grow into the monstrosity it is today - a horrid patchwork of discordant systems with little to no interoperability.

In order to protect that hodgepodge of systems, the individual industries each leaned on lawmakers in both the US and EU. Thus was born the DMCA, or Digital Millenium Copyright Act. In Europe, they passed the 2001 European Directive on Copyright, which covers much of the same ground. Though these laws spelled out very clearly the right to have protection for digital products, neither does a good job of spelling out how. In fact, the majority of each bill outlines what a consumer can or cannot do with protected media while imposing no guidelines on the producers.

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. The advent of DRM If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. The advent of DRM
The lack of standards in DRM methods has created problems on many fronts, but most all of them solely affect the legitimate end user. For instance, Apple's FairPlay prohibits any music that bears copy protection other than FairPlay from being able to play on iPods. On the flip-side, any music purchased that contains FairPlay cannot be played on a device that is not an iPod. Along a similar vein, Microsoft developed PlaysForSure, which for sure won't even play on the company's own upcoming Zune.

This leads to a crucial question: Who is DRM there to protect? The record industry didn't get any more money just because your Samsung Sansa won't play your legally purchased track from iTunes Music Store. But you're not going to run out and spend money on an iPod when you have a perfectly good player. If everything was standardized so that all players could play all DRM content, wouldn't that be better?

Why, sure...Unless, of course, you just give in and spend the $0.99 to buy the song twice. Don't forget the music video for just $2.99!

"Money, it's a gas. Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash." - DRM Abuse

When Roger Waters wrote the lyrics to "Money" on Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon in 1973, he probably didn't realize how well he'd outline their own industry 30 years later. Ever since the onset of copy and content protection, legitimate consumers have been the unwitting victims in what could best be described as a war between the producers and the pirates - the guy with the dough is just collateral damage. Or is he?

Probably the greatest faux-pas of any of the industries belongs to Sony as a member of the RIAA. The rootkit scandal is likely to go down in history as one of the greatest abuses to consumer rights currently known. Worse than the actual copy protection, though, was the fact that the installed software did "phone home" with information, turning your computer into a marketing infoproducer. This little boon was slid in under the guise of protecting the music that was purchased - it just happened to let them know your listening habits. How convenient...

The RIAA is far from the only group to try and benefit further off of their right to protection. Commercial DVDs (at least those sold here in the States) still come with that FBI warning I mentioned previously. By law, that track must be unskippable, so that any consumer is forced to be aware of what could happen if that DVD were to be pirated. Realising that advertising on a DVD was much easier to skip than on VHS, studios began putting the previews and adverts on that FBI Warning track - making them completely unskippable.

The software industry has had its own problems with copy protection being used to piggyback other benefits. For instance, many pieces of software generate hashes based on what hardware is in your machine - this information becomes part of the code you need for your product key, giving the manufacturer a good idea of what types of systems are in use and with what other software, without you ever providing a lick of consent. Many times in the computer world, though, this minor intrusion is ignored - there are usually bigger fish to fry, like the users of StarForce copy protection.

Most of these misguided attempts keep getting scape goated to one eternal, sworn enemy - the pirates. If pirates didn't crack and steal it, they rationalize, then the industry wouldn't have to work so hard to protect it. If you'd just turn against those pirates, then the **AA wouldn't have to violate your rights to protect their own.

Oh, wait...you had rights? Well, sort of...
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October 15 2020 | 14:00

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