Hollywood’s Secret Weapon: DRM

11 Aug 2018

A persuasive writing experiment (commentary)

Have you ever watched a movie?

Has it ever watched you back?

Welcome to the dizzying world of DRM (Digital Restrictions Management).

DRM is a set of technologies bundled with movies, TV shows, music, video games, and e-books designed to restrict how you use works you acquired legally. The Big Cheeses in Hollywood want you to think it is necessary for copyright, but for this stated purpose, DRM is ineffective. Still, Hollywood continues to demand it. Why? DRM has never been about copyright, only controlling and locking down users – and for this, it is chillingly effective. Mega-corporations push DRM to stifle innovation and creativity, and in cahoots with the government, they lobby for draconian legislation to stop dissent, like the “Digital Millennium Copyright Act”. Today, the DMCA makes legitimate use of a work a federal crime, simply because the work was DRM-encumbered.

How does DRM affect users like you? On macOS, you cannot take a screenshot while the DVD player is open. On the Kindle, Amazon remotely deleted copies of 1984, ironically keeping people from learning about dystopia. On many systems like e-readers, you cannot enjoy a work you purchased on a different device than you bought the work on. On many video games, you cannot enjoy a work without Internet connection. On Spotify and Netflix: you cannot remix a song or movie in order to benefit the commons – including for cases otherwise protected by your Fair Use rights. Before it was removed due to outrage, the DRM on music distributed by Sony contained a “rootkit”, powerful spyware infecting consumer’s machines. In our digital world, DRM is almost everywhere, putting your security at risk, trampling your creativity, and inconveniencing you, simply because you follow the law.

Beyond its user control ambitions, DRM seeks to criminalise knowledge. DRM has created “illegal numbers”, series of digits which could help bypass DRM schemes and liberate users. The numbers themselves have become a crime to write under the DMCA – as if numbers could be “illegal” outside of 1984. Worse, when security researchers discover DRM bugs, bugs leaving millions of users vulnerable to hackers, they are forced to stay silent. If they tried to help protect us, the DMCA would brand them a “felon” under the same excuse.

That is, DRM is an infringement on our free speech, a right we cherish deeply. Again citing the DMCA, DRM proponents attempted to censor the Free Speech Flag, a flag opposing DRM whose distribution is ostensibly protected by the First Amendment. Their excuse? The colors on the flag, as part of the political protest, could be interpreted as one such “illegal number”. Of course, the Streisand effect meant that the flag became widely circulated following the legal aggression.

DRM clearly hurts well-meaning people. How do the proponents justify it? Typically, they claim it helps creatives – that is a lie. Even supposing that DRM were necessary to ensure producing creative works is profitable (it’s not), in the mainstream publishing industry pushing DRM, the vast majority of a work’s profits go to the publisher who has made zero creative contribution. The creatives labouring to write books or animate cartoons earn peanuts compared to their greedy publishers. Further, DRM actively impedes creativity. As every artist knows, truly original works do not exist; we paint on the shoulders of giants. Yet DRM destroys our freedom to synthesise works, in order to create something truly new and benefit us all. DRM reserves the “privilege” of creation only for the mainstream publishers themselves. DRM is cultural greed.

DRM does not have your best interests at heart. The good news is that we can work together to stop it. As a Disney executive said, “If consumers even know there’s a DRM, what it is, and how it works, we’ve already failed”. Since DRM depends on people like you having no idea it exists, the most important step is to learn. The next step is to avoid DRM. You can continue enjoying the works you love; just get them DRM-free instead. Remember, the “D” in DRM means “digital”: there’s no DRM in a book or a CD, and the DRM in DVDs can be bypassed1. And hey, a public library card is cheaper than Netflix or a Kindle!

DRM’s tentacles are encroaching into every aspect of our lives. Even academic papers, the pinnacle of human knowledge, are often DRM-encumbered. But there is hope. If we stay informed, we can fight back – and we will win.

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  1. The free program libdvdcss performs this decryption, enabling DVD playback on systems like GNU/Linux. That said, its legal status is unclear in the United States due to the aforementioned DMCA. Consult a lawyer if you’re concerned.↩︎