I've been a freelance web designer and marketing writer for the past 25 years and have written 15 books on Macintosh computing and the Internet. I have an MA in cultural anthropology and a love for all things science fiction and fantasy. I have been privileged to create http://www.livescifi.com for Anthony Simcoe as well as several fan-based sites (http://www.benbrowderportal.com and http://www.claudiablackportal.com).View all articles by Rita Lewis
The idea of intellectual property goes back centuries and is backed up by numerous international and historic agreements, such as the 1886 Berne Convention, the World Trade Organization's Trade-Related aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), and numerous legal challenges. Why are intellectual property rights (also called copyrights) such a big deal? One word: money. Every time you read a book, watch a television show, a song is played on the radio or other medium, a live concert performs, or you play a computer game, the holder of the copyright is paid some sort of fee.
In the late 1980s, the development of the personal computer was thrown into the mix and suddenly there were many companies and creators scared they would lose the ability to control their property. In other words, they would not be able to find out where a creation was being used so that they could be paid. The personal computer and with it the Internet allows users to copy original work and even sell the copy to someone else. It started with cassette tapes and VCRs, and later CD-ROMs, DVD, flash cards, and other devices that were developed to play and store digital media. The trend continues today with the development of music and video formats such as MP3 and MP4 as well as AVI and DIVx. The trend also includes copying machines that became so good at creating copies that you could no longer tell them from the originals, which led to people sharing documents and information for free that previously had been sold for large amounts of money.
So, the owners of the copyrights hired really smart programmers to devise many ways to manage the way that their property is processed by digital devices. These methods of control are called digital rights management, or DRM. DRM is designed to prevent you from accessing, copying, or converting of materials into other formats using digital devices.
The bottom line of digital rights management is the idea that you do not actually own a book, an audio or video file, or even the disk it is printed upon; rather you have actually licensed it from its copyright holder. That license is very limited in scope.
The original dream of information providers when the World Wide Web became more universally used in the late 1990s was that every single item of data on the Internet would be licensed and one would have to pay for access. The DRM systems would actually keep an accounting of information use and send off payments in real time. This of course was a complete bust because there was no way to enforce the way people used the Internet so as to prevent the reading of materials. As they said on the movie "Serenity," "Can't Stop The Signal!"
The first implementation of DRM failed because the only way programmers had to manage access to materials or web pages was to hide the pages via encryption which proved way too expensive given the tiny amounts of money that could be collected. So, DRM developers uncoupled the code from the Internet and concentrated on other methods that were less intrusive to contain illegal copying.
For example, Windows Vista uses a DRM called Protected Media Path which tries to prevent a video from playing if Vista senses an unsigned (meaning that Windows has not approved its presence on the computer) piece of software running. In addition, PMP will encrypt the video stream to further prevent copying.
Another new DRM, which is promoted by the Motion Picture Association of America and Fox Studios, is called the Broadcast Flag. Its purpose is to prevent copying of video off of High-Definition TV, but often blocks fair use of video due to how the software defines the act of copying.
Music producers also tried to hard-code DRM into music CDs and often these special CD-ROMs would not play in all players or computers, which also sometimes even caused Windows computers to crash when a user tried to play a CD.
Then, in 2005, Sony took the ultimate step of constructing a DRM code that stealthily copied itself onto your computer when you inserted a music CD. The irony of this was that the DRM copied itself at the root of the hard drive causing severe security risks due to how it installed itself.
Class action suits and other legal challenges by organizations who opposed the idea of Digital Rights Management have encouraged many music industry companies to publish their CDs without DRM. EMI is the last publisher to withdraw DRM from its CDs. Apple's iTunes store is also now publishing music that is not copy-protected (for an aditional fee).
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act and DRM
The DMCA was passed by Congress on May 14, 1998 and had an immediate impact on how music and other multimedia was shared between computers and on the Internet because it suddenly criminalized the production of any technology that tried to circumvent DRM. Of course, if somebody wants to copy something, they will figure out a way around the copy-protection even if such a method is illegal. Thus, the DMCA has basically been a bust as a deterrent. What DMCA has done is allow the publishers to sue users if they are caught with copied music or videos on their computers. DMCA has also had a chilling affect on scientific and military research, such as cryptography and the collaborative capabilities of the Internet, as well as the sharing of copies of materials in libraries and archives. Such "fair use" copying is greatly complicated by DMCA and digital rights management schemes.
Another interesting problem with DRM-coded works is that they actually violate copyright law since copyrights expire but DRM restrictions do not. What this means is that if media is copy-protected using DRM it will never be accessible to the public domain as it is supposed to after a designated amount of time. There is a story by Spider Robinson called "Melancholy Elephants" that won a Hugo Award in 1983. In it, Spider posits a world where all creative works were permanently copyrighted and art and creativity began to wither and die because all works are ultimately derivative. (Highly recommended read to help understand the possible impact of DRM on art and literature.)
Reactions Against DRM
In June 2007, the Electronic Frontier Foundation published a new type of license, called the GNU General Public License, Version 3, for software developers that expressly forbade the use of DRM to restrict free redistribution and modification of software covered by this license. The Electronic Frontier Foundation's argument against DRM is that it acts as a trade barrier and the free market should control the flow of information.
A second organization, Creative Commons, created a license for text, videos, and music published on the Internet. Creative Commons licenses prohibit the use of DRM to restrict the reuse of fair use materials to expand upon and build new works based on earlier work.
Is DRM killing creativity or saving it? Depends upon how you look at the problem--as a publisher or as a user. But the issue of intellectual property rights and their limits is not going to go away as more and more electronic devices are linked so as to share information.
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