Ray Richards is founder of Mindspan Consultants and a technology journalist hailing from Ottawa, Canada

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Digital Rights Management - Part 2

Last month if you recall, we undertook a discussion on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and its implications in the United States and the ensuing effect beyond that country's borders. In Canada for example, our more measured response to copyright issues and our rejection of a Canadian DMCA resulted in our country being included in a special US 301 report which in essence wagged a seriously  disapproving finger at our ‘lax' intellectual property laws and stated that we would be monitored for signs of future improvement.

The fact is, the DMCA's sole raison d'etre  is to shelter big media corporations by enabling the criminalization of defeating by any means, the copy protection or encryption technologies they may implement in either their distributed media, including CDs and DVDs or indeed the devices designed to play them. This technology is known as Digital Rights Management or DRM.

I suppose the best way to illustrate how DRM affects the average technology user would be to draw a couple of examples from my own personal experience.

A few years ago, I was due to return home from a trip to Thailand and faced with the prospect of watching Air Canada selected entertainment over the course of the 26 hour excursion, decided it would be a good idea to buy a DVD from a record store to watch on my notebook computer instead. Well it turned out that Air Canada surprised me on this trip and I never did crack open my computer. A few days after my arrival home however, I remembered the DVD and decided to give it a spin. I fired up my (at that time) top of the line Sony DVD player and slid in the movie, expecting to be entertained. Instead I was annoyed. The machine wouldn't play my DVD at all as it was region coded 3 (Asia Pacific) instead of 1 (North America).

This struck me as completely ridiculous. Would it be acceptable for me to buy a standard set of PING golf clubs to play a round at the Bangkok Airport (you have to see it to believe it) and subsequently return home only to find they are disallowed at Pebble Beach?! I don't think so. But as mentioned last month, you aren't really buying anything save the plastic; you license the content.

My next encounter with warm and snuggly DRM came at the combined hands of PureTracks.com and Microsoft.

With over 400 CDs in my collection, I am not a casual consumer of music. There have however, over the years been occasions where my desire to own a single track did not in my view warrant the purchase of an entire CD, as the rest of its content did not appeal. Until recently, I would simply forego that purchase, but with the advent of legal digital music downloads in Canada, I decided to give it a try.

Finding a song I was interested in on PureTracks.com was a relatively simple matter – downloading it and getting it to play was not. First off, the site would not allow me to download the tune until I had installed Microsoft Windows Media Player 9... of course they didn't tell me this until I had purchased. The reason? The track was encoded in such a manner as to preclude its playback on any software save Media Player 9 which has strong support for DRM. Of course, at the time, this software wasn't exactly stable and I soon discovered after downloading and installing it that my computer was now completely sound free – and not in a liberating way.

No amount of tweaking over the course of an entire week could get my sound back. So, having no way to play the song on my main PC, I moved it over to a secondary one... only to now realize that the file was encoded to play solely on the machine to which it had originally been downloaded. As my primary motivation for acquiring this song in the first place was so that I could listen to it on a portable MP3 player, this simply would not do.

I now had to go back to the site and obtain a license key for that machine which finally enabled me, after more than a week, to hear the compressed version of my tune. Fortunately, the file did allow me to burn the track to a blank CD (many do not), which in Canada of course, you also pay a music industry levy on. Feeling I would paying for this music twice in so doing, I decided to burn it to a rewritable CD and then rip that to an MP3 instead.

So now I had a doubly compressed tune which I could play on any device and a week of my free time had been shot. And though I had indeed paid for this song in terms of the original purchase and my acquisition of a rewritable CD, my music was now illegal – and the music industry wonders why people forego the preceding steps and simply download a  pirated copy in the first place.

DRM is becoming more ubiquitous daily, with its latest incarnation being found in the so called "Broadcast Flag", originally proposed by the FCC to be enacted by June 1st of this year. This technology would have enabled the media companies delivering content to restrict what consumers could do with it on a per episode basis. The Broadcast Flag provided for either the complete restriction of digital recording, or the degradation of HD content to standard TV resolution should recording be permitted. Additionally restrictions on making more than one recorded copy and the ability to disallow skipping of commercials were included in the spec.

Fortunately, the FCC lost the first battle on this one as the US government stated that the passing of this bill did not fall under the FCC's jurisdiction. Obviously, this doesn't mean that the Broadcast Flag is going away – just that it'll have to go through different channels to become law. In fact, electronics manufacturers (many like Sony being content distributors as well) have for some time now been so certain of its enaction that they have long been producing hardware which conforms with the specification – go figure.

It seems the digital wild west is rapidly coming to end; the final result of which being ‘fair use' rights heavily trodden underfoot. We are now shackled with even more restrictive content consumption limitations than we had before the digital revolution, while at the same time these technologies are nonetheless being touted as ‘liberating' by the media companies lobbying to deploy them. Frankly, even George Orwell would be impressed by this latest incarnation of newspeak.

This ariticle was originally published in HUB magazine,Connected column, July 2005, columnist, Ray Richards


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