23 June 2006

Interoperable DRM?

I have been mulling a post for sometime about DRM, particularly around the issues that Apple might be having with it, and my frustrations with the simplistic treatment it receives from many in the press.

I don't need to write that long-winded diatribe (as that's what it would have been) because John Gruber has written it pretty much exactly as I would have wanted to have said it. While not short, John's arguments are cogent and pretty much spot on.

Assuming DRM is here to stay in some form or other, I think the best way that the authorities can protect the interests of their consumers while not allowing any particular company to become overly dominant (and I'm referring to the record labels, music stores, and hardware/software companies in this context) is not to try to mandate DRM interoperability, but to ensure that rights obtained via one method of DRM are relatively interchangeable on similar terms between other DRM methods, and in a simple fashion with either a trivial sum of money or (ideally) no money required to make such a conversion. Such conversions could be exercised on an occasional basis with the frequency perhaps being limited to once a year if it was free, or with more variations if it was funded.

There are those who say Apple need to be stopped. But Apple is far from a monopoly in this market at this time (especially in many European countries where it's share is between 10-40%). Measures targeted purely at Apple will tip the balance back in favour of other companies (eg Microsoft, or labels) which have been less innovative and consumer-oriented. At this time, you have a choice about buying into the iPod market or staying out of it. The market is working well, and we have seen an innovative service introduced that has put the labels onto the back foot for the benefit of the consumers. Sony couldn't (wouldn't) do it, and Microsoft's own proprietary system has been slow to get off the ground and not found favour with consumers.

Assuming some form of DRM is here to stay, the best way authorities can ensure consumers' rights are maintained for the purchase of copyrighted material while keeping a lid on companies abusing market situations (note EU efforts have always been too little, too late, so do this now!) is to legislate to ensure that such rights can be exchanged easily on similar terms (i.e switch from one DRM version to another). Perhaps a small tax (I'm talking here of a few percent at most) could be applied to digital downloads? Maybe even this tax could be optional for those who wish to maintain their choice, keeping the best deal for those who are happy and confident with the limitations. The tax would be non-profit and go towards running a DRM-exchange/usage licensing service. This will keep Apple and Microsoft on their toes while ensuring the record labels don't succeed in using DRM to make us buy multiple copies of the same thing (which we know is what they want) when they pretend its to stop piracy.

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