Server-based DRM solutions are hostile to consumers

I have a long history with DRM (Digital Rights Management): I worked on the Windows Media 7 Encoder team; I worked at two different internet video startups; and as the owner of record label, I experimented with some of the very first paid digital download solutions (all long lost to internet history at this point).

When I first learned about the DRM mechanism where the player would “phone home” periodically to make sure that you were still licensed to the content, I immediately realized that this was a really fragile way to license media. I’m not talking about subscription content (like Rhapsody), streaming media (like Hulu/YouTube/Flash Media Server) or rentals (like Amazon/iTunes rental), I’m talking about content that is purchased by the consumer. The issue is that there are 1000 ways that the user can lose access to their content without any ill intent on their part. This isn’t an issue if the licenser of their content is still in business and supporting the licensing mechanism. However, even large companies sunset their DRM technology support, screwing over their customers (see Google Video and Microsoft Plays For Sure for example). Depending on how onerous the original licensing scheme is and how it was implemented, buying a new computer, changing the hardware configuration, upgrading system software, the company dropping support for the DRM, the licensing company’s servers going down or just the user being without the internet can cause a user to lose access to the content that they paid for and legally own.

Maybe the user got some warning and could back up their content to some other format (if allowed by the licensing scheme, it often isn’t); but maybe they didn’t see or understand the warning. Then it is too late. Is it the consumer’s fault? No, it is never the consumer’s fault. They purchased digital content with the expectation of owning it forever, just like when they purchased their media as hard goods.

Onerous DRM has been put in place by media companies desperate to avoid piracy, but as it has been written about in so many other places, DRM makes more pirates than it avoids. It makes it more difficult for the people who want to get their content legally by adding roadblocks between them and their purchases and it doesn’t stop the pirates who avoid the whole thing. I wonder how many Plays For Sure customers went to an illegal site to re-download the content that they had already purchased when they lost access to it. I wonder if any of them felt like they were breaking the law at that point. I doubt it. They had paid for something and had been denied access to it. Maybe they were mad at Microsoft, but they were probably more mad at the record labels, because that was the product they purchased. Microsoft was just the store.

I was thinking about this again today when I went to purchase a song off of iTunes and found that Apple had lost my Apple ID. This was the Apple ID that I had spent years buying content from iTunes with. Sure, Apple has moved to make their music DRM free, but I haven’t completely updated my catalog yet, and there is a lot of video that I have paid money for as well that is still subject to Apple’s DRM. While their mechanism still allows me to play my content on my authorized computers (as far as I can tell so far), it will not permit me to authorize a new computer. If Apple isn’t able to fix this problem, what happens to the content I purchased over time? If I can’t access it anymore through no fault of my own, am I in the wrong legally to download it off a file-sharing site?

DRM models have continued to evolve over the years, but I think that the audio model has shown the way for purchased content. It is high time for media owners to allow the people that pay for a full copy of their content to own that content outright, with nothing that could prevent the consumer from having access to the content that they paid for, including transcoding as media formats change over time. Otherwise, they will alientate their consumers as they find they cannot have what they paid for.

note: I avoided mentioning the new licensing models that have sprung up, where when you “buy” a copy of a song or movie the license agreement says that you don’t really own it, which is becoming more common as a way to avoid legal issues when user’s circumvent DRM to make fair-use copies or so that they cannot sue if they cannot access their content. I avoided mentioning it because:
A) it muddies the discussion.
B) I think it is evil.

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