Music to My Peers

While anti-authoritarian youth used to "rage against the machine", now they "rage using the machine", with illegally downloaded dance music

I admit it. I have copied computer games without paying for them, many of which are still sitting in their 5¼in diskette boxes. As this was done 20 years ago, I'm hoping the statute of limitations will protect this admission from prosecution. What reminded me of these former nefarious activities is the current debate over Digital Rights Management (DRM) for music downloads, games, movies and books. It's been recently inflamed by an application called FairUse4WM, which has broken the copy protection code introduced into Windows Media Player.

I'm meticulously following this debate to determine where I stand on the issue. Like the republican debate in Australia, there seems to be three sides to the copying debate - one for No and two for Yes. There are those who are absolutely against it under any circumstance (the Anti-Copyists), those who are absolutely for it under all circumstances (the Copyists), and those who are for it conditionally - in this case if there's no financial damage (If-Owned-Copyists).

Anti-Copyists contend that artists should receive value, in the form of payment, equivalent to the value the consumer gets in listening to their song or playing their game, in the form of enjoyment. I agree with that argument. The If-Owned-Copyists point out that if the music has been paid for, why can't it be copied, for example from PC to iPod, another argument I support. They quickly stress it would be one's own iPod, not that of a friend, family member or whole group of loose acquaintances. Copyists advocate that licensing stifles freedom and hurts the exposure of artists, therefore there should be no restrictions. I also agree with this argument, even though this could be summarized as "I want stuff for free" (a common Internet sentiment).

Totally Agreeable

Anti-Copyists say that downloading a song without payment is like stealing a CD from a shop. I agree. Even though the billions of dollars they claim artists and companies lose without DRM schemes does not account for the fact that the vast majority of pirated music, games, CDs and DVDs are products people would not purchase at market prices. Although given that markets are where most people buy their pirate DVDs, perhaps I should use the term street price instead. The loss of billions is more a marketing statement, like when a newspaper says it has a million readers, but only sells 200,000 papers.

The two Copyists groups have found a useful slogan in Fair Use, which I agree with. Even though they don't specify exactly who gets to determine what's fair, and to whom. The ability to freely upload information, including the occasional copyrighted video, must be worth a fair amount, though, judging by Google's recent $US1.65 billion purchase of YouTube.

Copyists contend that given the problem is so widespread and the remedies so limiting, all restrictions should be removed, which I agree with. Even though the idea of "if it's too hard to police, just drop it" sounds like the argument that proposes the best way to reduce crime is to decriminalize everything.

Some Copyists even wrote an open letter to Microsoft asking them not to patch the exposed flaw in Media Player, using the curious argument that removing DRM on a file makes it more useful, and therefore more valuable, thus boosting music and subscription sales. I'm struggling to agree with this as it sounds like saying shoplifting groceries easily from a supermarket makes the supermarket more popular - which it does, but only among shoplifters.

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Those who have criticized Microsoft in the past for being slow in fixing security flaws should take heart that a mere 24 hours after the FairUse4WM code break application was announced and the letter sent asking them not to fix it, Microsoft announced a patch for Media Player. It does seem a tad hypocritical for them to stop people ripping off music in the very product which has Rip as a menu action.

A Norwegian hacker called DVD-Jon has created code that beats Apple's copy protection, removing the playback restrictions of iPods. He's planning to license and sell this code via his Web site. I'm waiting for someone to develop hack code breaking his copy protected iPod copy protection breaking code. They could call their hack iRony.

BigPond's Games Shop is releasing DRM-protected games with a 60-minute trial, then it's pay up or lose it. I agree. Even though I remember PC games 20 years ago also came with various copy protections, which lasted about a month before programs like CopyWrite and CopyMaster were updated to copy the diskettes. If history follows (and it usually does), a games DRM breaker program is likely to surface this side of New Year.

The Beatles song Yesterday comes to mind, as it was a lot simpler before downloads and copy protection. When I was young, digital theft meant the old five-finger discount. Now we have multiple competing DRM formats, each with different hardware requirements and restrictions. Yesterday is reportedly the song most covered by other artists, so if I wanted to download every Yesterday cover, I could be subjected to at least five different DRM schemes, from Microsoft, SanDisk, Real Networks, OMA and Apple.

We're seeing attempts to artificially curtail the technology to keep it within our current social and legal boundaries. The subscription model by SanDisk Rhapsody provides a pre-load of gigabytes of music with automatic updates over time, so as a consumer, you are spared the trouble of purchasing and downloading - or getting to select the music you'd like.

The subscription model has often been tried and usually fails. When commercial wireless first hit the country around 1920, it was sold as a set pre-tuned to one radio station to which you paid a subscription and got to listen to whatever they played. This sounds just like SanDisk of 90 years ago. If you wanted to hear a second station, you bought a second set and a second subscription. Sounds a lot like the current iPod versus MP3 restrictions, doesn't it?

Typically after internal protections fail, legal protections are next attempted. The US Supreme Court last year established liability for services that "induce" infringement, covering business like Grokster and potentially YouTube. I agree with this, even though this approach was previously attempted with blank video and audio cassettes. Content owners then argued - correctly - that the main use for blank cassettes was for copying material rarely owned by the user. That law, and the subsequent suggestion of a royalty tariff on all blank media, never came to pass.

US Congress is currently looking at an anti-circumvention law, to make the avoidance of one company's protection product by another company's anti-protection product illegal. Another view I agree with, even though attempting to solve a global issue with a single country's legislature historically has little chance of success.

The debate's not nearly over yet and having looked carefully at the Yes/Yes/No arguments, I certainly agree with them. I also agree that eventually, we'll regard this as a storm in a digital teacup and look back on it as a quaint time with a quirky technology for which we have no further use. Much like 5¼in diskettes, which I no longer have (in case anybody asks).

Bruce Kirkham is a veteran IT satirist and professional speaker ­specializing in leading edge technologies and scepticism, who views the IT industry not so much as "dot com" as "dot comedy"

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

Security vs. innovation: IT's trickiest balancing act