Wednesday, June 21, 2006

A Matter of Principle: Copy privileges

Eric Flint and Jim Baen have decided to write a series of columns, "Salvos Against Big Brother", on electronic publishing, opening with the stupidity of DRM.

"We're calling the column "Salvos Against Big Brother" because that captures the key aspect of the problem, so far as Jim Baen and I are concerned. Both the publisher of this magazine and its editor believe that so-called Digital Rights Management (DRM)—by which we mean the whole panoply of ever more restrictive laws concerning digital media, including the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA)—are the following:

First, they represent a growing encroachment on the personal liberties of the American public, as well as those of citizens in other countries in the world;

Second, they add further momentum to what is already a dangerous tendency of governments and the large, powerful corporations which exert undue influence on them to arrogate to themselves the right to make decisions which properly belong to the public;

Third, they tend inevitably to constrict social, economic, technical and scientific progress;

And, fourth, they represent an exercise in mindless stupidity that would shame any self-respecting dinosaur."

It's wonderfully done. Highly recommended. As are the Macaulay speeches on copyright he recommends, from 1841/42. Thanks to Magnus Therning on the ORG list for the link.

Update: Fritz Attaway of the MPAA and Wendy Seltzer of the Brooklyn Law School had an email debate for the Wall Street Journal yesterday. Cory thinks Seltzer makes mincemeat of Attaway's arguments but actually to someone who doesn't already understand the issues Attaway more than comfortably holds his own. To a reader like Cory, of course, the sleight of hand in the rhetoric is clear but that is absolutely not the case with the vast majority of people who have no interest in the debate about DRM. If those extolling the perils of drm are to have any genuine impact, then the argument needs to be couched in a way that interests, appeals to and convinces ordinary people, not just those who already understand the problem. The one point at which Seltzer does score on the ordinary mortal scale is with her conclusion, once Attaway signs off with the oft repeated admission that drm is no good against commercial pirates but that it keeps "honest people honest." She says at that point "We're both talking about balance, but our equilibrium points are very different. You seem content if we can pay in lots of different ways to see the same movies on a constrained set of devices. I see balance in an ecosystem of big and small media and independent innovation of technologies around them. I want to see what iPod for movies and TiVo for radio look like, and not just from companies who can strike deals with the major movie studios and record labels before they start.

DMCA-backed DRM lets the majors dictate the terms, well beyond price, on which we can use and interact with media. It makes copyright's limited monopoly into a technology regulation, a gate on hardware and software development through which only "approved" devices can pass. More sophisticated DRM will not improve that problem, just make the approvals more onerous and the range of consumer electronics smaller."

Final note for die hard anti drm folks - I'm not criticising Wendy. I agree wholeheartedly with every point she makes in this short debate. But I doubt she'll have succeeded in converting anyone who doesn't already recognise the problems with drm, especially readers of the WSJ who are attuned to Attaway's 'property protection is good' message.

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