Reflection on “Hollywood’s Secret Weapon: DRM”

12 Aug 2018

Behind the scenes look at Hollywood’s Secret Weapon: DRM

“Hollywood’s Secret Weapon: DRM” was a class assignment to write a persuasive piece on the social issue of our choosing. I chose DRM.

The arguments I present in “Hollywood’s Secret Weapon: DRM” are compelling to me. I am interested in free culture; I enjoy fan art and fanfiction; I care about my security. I would, I hope, be persuaded by my own writing. But these arguments are not the most compelling to me, nor are they the arguments that led me on the path to DRM opposition in the first place.

I learned of the ills of DRM through my involvement with the free software movement, a movement founded by Richard Stallman with the aim of preserving “software freedom”: the principle that all users of a program should have the right to use it for any purpose, to study its source code, to modify it to their liking, and to share it with other users. As a programmer and self-identified MIT-style “hacker”, I fell in love with free software years ago; my significant political contributions to date have been for the express purpose of pushing back against non-free software, which is unfortunately pervasive in our society.

Bridging the gap from supporting free software to opposing DRM is simple: every DRM scheme is, by definition, proprietary (non-free) software. If the DRM were free, my objections to DRM would vanish. There would be no security threat if we could view its source code. There would be no cultural threat if we could modify its source code to neuter it. If a DRM scheme exists to prevent me from taking screenshots, for instance, with proprietary software I would have little recourse. If the scheme were free, I could simply remove the line of code that blocks screenshots, and that would be it. Software freedom is about empowering users to take control of their computing; DRM is an affront on user freedom and a ploy from the industry to take control away from users. These concepts are clearly incompatible.

Seeing how persuasive this software freedom reasoning has been to me begs the question: why do the words “free software” or “proprietary software” never occur throughout the entirety of the supposedly persuasive op-ed? Surely, I must have committed a grave error, overlooking what I consider to be an incredibly persuasive piece of evidence, no?

In fact, the omission of free software rhetoric is deliberate. Opposition to DRM is typically framed in terms of software freedom, using similar argumentation to the above. I see minimal opposition to DRM that is not intimately connected to the free software philosophy, even if only in tandem with other appeals like those in my essay.

There lies the problem: free software is obscure. Our rhetoric captivates few; for the most part, dedicated free software supporters are programmers or sysadmins. We tend to be well-educated, liberal, highly computer literate, interested in technology for its own sake, and politically active. To our sliver of society, the importance of free software is an obvious irrefutable truth. To everyone else, there is no obvious reason to care about a software’s source code, provided it works. Whether these people have reason to care about free software is a topic for another essay entirely.

If the story ended there, we could simply refuse DRM ourselves and let the rest of society be, for instance justifying our groupish behaviour via the Allegory of the Cave, as a friend of mine did.

Unfortunately, the story does not end there. Source code aside, DRM is an affront to everyone’s freedom. Anyone who interacts with digital media, ranging from movies to e-books to software itself, is almost certainly victim to DRM schemes without so much as knowing they are there. DRM hurts us all; by de facto limiting our attention to freeing people like us, we are doing society a disservice, and as DRM is frighteningly normalized, doing even ourselves a disservice long-term.

Thus, my guiding principle for this op-ed is to argue against DRM for its own sake, highlighting the risks it poses to our culture, convenience, and security. Any mention of software freedom would be a distraction in a piece like this. Following the free software movement’s lead, there is a surplus of anti-DRM pieces using free software argumentation. There is a shortage of pieces specifically targeting everyone else.

As an anti-DRM activist, the principle issue I face is not mass opposition, but rather mass ignorance. Contrary to what either side might like you to believe, both DRM proponents and opponents are vocal minorities. The vast majority of users, those bearing the brunt of the injustice of DRM, are neutral on the issue by default. It is difficult to hold a view on something that you do not realise exists.

I know that I will never persuade DRM’s active proponents, for instance executives in Hollywood and various computer companies. I also know that outside of free software circles, there is a choir composed of people who already disrespect copyright law beyond the DMCA. There is no DRM on the Pirate Bay, as far I know; people who prefer torrents to Netflix are already living a “guerrilla” DRM-free life. There is little persuasion needed for these people; as such, minimising anti-copyright rhetoric is safest to avoid alienating others and to avoid unfortunate legal implications.

Accordingly, the op-ed’s target audience is non-technical Americans, unaffiliated with the entertainment industry but who hold some regard for copyright law, and with little prior knowledge of DRM and therefore no opportunity to have “hardened” opposing views. Ideally, educating these people about DRM from my point-of-view, framing it according to their non-technical values rather than my own, will enable sweeping change. Given the scope of the problem and its constituents, I therefore pursue a shallow-but-broad persuasive strategy. As long as I can sow the seeds of doubt, allowing them to learn more about the issue themselves without defaulting to industry propaganda, I will have succeeded.

The essay contains assorted liberal and conservative appeals, but generally, I try to appeal to bipartisan values like creativity and security. I rely on appeals to emotion, like appeals to fear when considering the security risks posed by DRM schemes, but I try to keep these emotions “basic”. There is no need to limit the audience more than necessary. DRM schemes range from being a nuisance to a grave threat, and on either end of the spectrum, they are just as dangerous against conservatives as against liberals. We all have a stake in this fight. While strong partisan appeals could persuade readers quickly, they are dangerous to the health of the cause long-term. There is no need to divide people on an issue about which we can currently unite.

In terms of persuasive strategies, I use each of the three Aristotelian strategies to various degrees. I realise that most people have no strong emotions relating to DRM; as such, I use fewer appeals to emotion as many other persuasive pieces. I recognise that popular political works are powerful precisely because they rely on emotional appeals, but these works benefit from a pre-existing emotional foundation embedded deep in our brains and the fabric of our society. In my case, I have no such luxury. Any emotional framework I would like to use I have to create myself; “bathos” pieces are impossible.

Accordingly, I attempt to present a rational case, providing a clear link between various popular reader values and the corresponding objection to DRM. This approach, an inverted form of motivated reasoning, combines pure logos with emotional techniques like moral reframing.

I don’t know if my appeals will resonate with readers. I suspect they will not, but that is the simple reality of persuasive writing.

I can only hope it will inch readers closer to our direction.

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