Saturday, April 07, 2007

The decline of DRM

It's way too early to claim that Digital Rights Management (DRM) is dead, or even sick, but it does seem to be in decline.

DRM is a fancy name for "copy protection". Copy protection has been around since the early days of personal computers. I remember breaking the copy protection scheme on a database program I bought for my old Atari 800 XL computer back in the late 80s. (The copy protection prevented me from making a back up of the program floppy disc. The law in Canada was, and perhaps still is, such that breaking the copy protection scheme to make a back up copy was entirely legal.) Today's DRM schemes are designed to protect copyright owners from illegal copying. Unfortunately, it in practice it hasn't worked out that way.

The problem with DRM is that it does not prevent pirates from stealing copyrighted material, but it does adversely affect the use of that material by people who have legitimately paid for it. I posted earlier this year a message about MP3 software that I use. One piece of software allows me to take protected .m4p files from iTunes and convert them to unprotected .m4a files. The only reason I need to do this is because the DRM on files sold by iTunes requires me to burn the files to a CD before I can convert them to MP3s. This is an unnecessary step from a legal standpoint. It's required only due to the onerous nature of DRM.

This week EMI announced that they would make their entire catalogue available on iTunes in a non-DRM format (for a slightly higher price). Apple applauded this move. It turns out that a lot of Apple's iTune support calls involve DRM problems. People purchase music and then can't figure out how to get them onto their MP3 players. They have a hard drive crash and the can't understand why they can't copy the music onto the new hard drive (because they've accidentally registered their work computer, their two home computers, and even Aunt Betty's computer with iTunes).

As Apple pointed out, it's not stopping pirates anyway. Its just peeving you and me. Apple is encouraging other companies to follow suit.

Also this week, Wizards of the Coast, the company responsible for Magic: The Gathering and the owners of Dungeons and Dragons announced that they would make all their products available as PDFs without DRM.

A PDF is Adobe's Portable Document Format. It's a format for files such that the file will look the same and print the same (or close enough) on every computer and printer. It has become a popular format for roleplaying games. It costs the company very little to provide PDFs. There are web sites that specialize in selling PDFs. Many companies supply printers PDF files to print their product, anyway. The PDF is cheaper than the print copy, mainly because you're not going to pay $40 for a PDF when you can buy the same game in hardcover for $40. (The optimum pricing seems to be between $5 and $15 for a PDF of a $30 to $50 book.) A new phenomenon is people buying the hard copy book, and then buying the PDF for their laptops. (I never fully understood this, until I found that I could travel with a virtual library on my laptop. And when I'm running a game I usually have my laptop running anyway. Most games have hideously awful indexes, so being able to search it on the computer is a bonus.)

Wizards of the Coast (known as WotC) is going to stop making their books — their D20 roleplaying books — available in DRM protected PDFs. Instead, they will be on watermarked PDFs. Digitally watermarked PDF files can be viewed and printed from any computer, while the watermarking will still indicate where the book came from. (I don't know how the watermarking works. It could be that it identifies the book with you, meaning if you spread it around it will have your name on it.)

WotC discovered the same thing as EMI and Apple. DRM gets in the way, while all of their products are available for free on eMule and other sites due to people scanning their books and posting the scans in PDFs. I have a DRM protected PDF. (which is currently down) has C.J. Carella's Witchcraft available as a free PDF, but it's DRM protected. I've downloaded it about four times now, because I can only run it on a single computer at a time. There is a way to register different computers so that I can run the game on those machines, but I seem to have messed that up. So here's a free book which I can use on any computer I own, and yet the DRM makes it difficult to use. This is just ridiculous. Welcome to the world of DRM.

I don't know if this is the beginning of the end for DRM. Too many companies are tied into it for anyone to know for sure. It is interesting that a number of big companies who invested in DRM are having second thoughts. This is good. I personally won't buy a DRM-ed CD any more. I have enough problems with the one CD that I have that's protected (an Our Lady Peace CD). I couldn't play it in either car, or the laptop. I had to rip it on the DVD player on the desktop computer and then burn it to a new CD without the DRM. Yes, I had to "illegally" copy the CD in order to play it in the car. As I said, just ridiculous...

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