Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

An Exaggerated Death
The Growing Mess of DRM

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, May 29, 2007 --  

EMI's decision to allow sales of unprotected music online won't end the problems caused by copy protection schemes.

The announcement1 that Apple's iTunes music store will soon begin selling some music downloads without copy protection has the digital music industry hyped with anticipation. Many voices are pronouncing that "digital rights management'' or DRM, as digital copy protection is known, is finally dead, allowing the industry to glide toward the glowing rainbow of consumer nirvana.

But much like Mark Twain's death, reports of the death of DRM are greatly exaggerated. Apple's plans for downloads free of copy protection currently involve only the catalog of a single music label: EMI. No other major labels have announced plans to sell their music without the same cumbersome DRM schemes that have been hampering consumers for years. Even if other labels eventually follow EMI's lead, many consumers already have huge collections of music locked-down by various DRM schemes, meaning that the technology will be with us for many excruciatingly painful years to come.

And this is just the situation with music -- online video sales are another matter entirely. For years, television and motion picture studios have had their heads in the sand, refusing to learn the lessons of digital revolution in the music industry. To this day, they continue to focus on increasingly complex DRM schemes for their content, so much so that rival high-definition DVD formats, designed to be mutually incompatible, are creating a sequel to the old Betamax vs. VHS video format rivalry.

But for the sake of optimism, let's confine our discussion of music. Even if all labels and music stores were to abandon selling copy protected tracks tomorrow, consumers would continue to hold millions of copies of these intentionally hobbled products. Most of these buyers believe they own the music they've purchased, just as if they've bought a CD from a store. And as long as iTunes customers continue to play their music on their Apple computers and iPod music players, they'll never no the difference. The same goes for customers from other music stores and their Windows-powered computers and music players.

But while computers and portable music players typically have a lifespan of a few years, music collections have traditionally stayed with people for their entire lives. Once you replace your computer and digital music player, the music won't play anymore. This is because DRM-protected music files require external "keys'' to unlock their contents. These keys are automatically installed on your computer or music player when you buy music, but won't be there when you buy your replacement machine.

Online stores selling DRM-encumbered music address this problem by allowing you to "authorize'' your new computer to play the music, essentially giving you another copy of the key needed to play your songs. But this key can't be issued by the individual -- it has to be issued by the music store. What happens when all the music stores have stopped selling copy-protected music? Will they stay in the business of issuing new keys for people to unlock their music every few years when they buy a new computer or music player?

For a few years, music stores will likely help out. But a decade or two into the future, music stores might not be around to perform the service, or might decide they will no longer incur the expense of doing so. When this happens, people with copy-protected music will find their music collections from the mid-2000s lost forever.

This is one of the main reasons that today's DRM schemes were always a bad idea. As long as a music file's copy-protection remains intact, somebody must maintain the system for transferring rights from one playing device to another, something that simply can't last forever. Unfortunately, most digital music consumers are blissfully unaware of the impending breakdown of their music collections.

To be sure, the prerequisite for cleaning up a mess is to stop making the mess bigger. While it's great news that iTunes is going to be selling music without copy protection, the mess of DRM will continue to get bigger until every single music track and video file is sold without such DRM schemes in place. Unfortunately, we are nowhere near that point. Consumers are going to suffer the consequences of the growing DRM mess for many years to come, and the pain they will feel has hardly even begun.


1. Apple Computer, Apple Unveils Higher Quality DRM-Free Music on the iTunes Store, April 2, 2007