DRM: Stealing Your Security and Rights one DVD at a Time

Editorial note: Corporations are inserting their DRM (digital rights management) technology onto CDs, DVDs, and secretly onto our hard drives. Consumers are often prevented from controlling, duping, or even routinely transferring songs and movies they've legitimately bought. We are spied on like criminals, while professional pirates routinely circumvent the controls. We've all been experiencing the frustration of these outrageous intrusions, but more of us need to understand how much DRM violates our basic privacy and consumer rights, and how much it is cramping the potential of the digital revolution. This article lays it bare. Read it. Share it.

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“If consumers even know there's a DRM, what it is,
and how it works,
we've already failed."

- Peter Lee, Disney Executive


If you aren't a card-carrying member of the Tin Foil Hat Brigade, then you probably haven’t been made familiar with Digital “Rights” Management, or DRM. The introductory quote, taken from a 2005 issue of The Economist, is a testament to the fact that DRM technology was not created in the interests of the end-user.

It was designed to assure the media monoliths that they won't lose any potential income because you’ve decided to burn your own copy of Hannah Montana rather than wait for the overly expensive, yet nicely packaged, DVD season editions.

From the Betamax Issue to the Digital Quandary

A few readers may recall the “Betamax case,” when Sony was sued by Universal Studios for manufacturing a device that could possibly be used for copyright infringement. Some years and a whole lot of legal mumbo jumbo later, Universal Studios lost the case and then whined for Congressional legislation that would protect them from the evils of home copying.

Happily, this idea did not pass with Congress, and I can only assume Congressmen were reluctant to set limitations on their own VCR use. Instead, a statutory royalty was attached to the sale of blank video tapes that was then distributed within the entertainment industry. It didn’t matter if one purchased the tapes to record Shaft or the purchaser’s own version of Afternoon Delight, the entertainment industry continued to profit.

However, with the advent of digital recording abilities, entertainment companies are quickly losing the royalty received from blank tape sales and are struggling to hold on to every potential greenback. While the industry hasn’t developed a way to profit from digital home recordings, it has developed nefarious DRM technologies.

DRM is a basic term for any technology used by copyright holders to control an end-user’s access and use of any digital data, software, or hardware. This type of technology basically forces a legitimate customer to follow the copyright holder’s perception of fair-use standards. Its abilities in restricting media piracy are about as effective as throwing a giant net over the ocean in an effort to capture Blackbeard.

Basically, a whole lot of innocent consumers are captured in a frustrating and potentially harmful snare while true media pirates run off laughing with a million stolen copies of Metallica’s Black album.

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What is digital rights management?

DRM technology directly affects you as a consumer in several ways. First and foremost is the loss of control over your own media rights. Your ability to make a copy of any media you own covered under fair use practices is limited or even negated.

DRM technology cannot differentiate between legitimate copying for personal use, such as creating a mix CD, and a true media pirate seeking to steal a tidy profit from any entertainment industry by selling bootleg movies.

The problem with DRM technology isn’t the idea of attempting to preserve copyright law. The digital explosion has created a quandary for copyright holders attempting to hold on to some of the profit. The problem with current DRM technology is that it’s largely anti-consumer, anti-fair rights, anti-industry growth and generally ineffective.

DRM practices don't manage a user’s media rights; it strips the legitimate user of those rights. This is somewhat akin to the idea of having the busboy stand over your table at Shoney's to make sure you don't share your dessert with anyone.

It doesn't matter that you bought the dessert and are therefore the legal owner of your Shoney's pie; Shoney's wants to make sure you don't do something silly with your pie such as give a bite of it to your husband. So the busboy stands over your table waiting to see if he has to rip the pie from your hands even though you may not be through with it.

Perhaps you decide you want to dissect the pie so you can recreate the wonders of Shoney's desserts at home. If the busboy catches on that you are attempting to recreate the pie, not only will he rip the pie away from you, he may also file charges against you under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 (DMCA) because it's illegal to reverse the pie making process.

Proponents of DRM technology not only remove your fair use right, they also assume you're a criminal to boot. What a wonderful way to treat media consumers!

Code Reds in the Rootkits and Disappearing Movies

If Big Brother breathing its taint all over your media rights doesn't concern you, consider what the evil little DRM widgets with teeth could be doing to your hard drive. Many were never even aware of the DRM technology's existence until the 2005 Sony-BMG brouhaha.

Two pieces of rather icky software were added to around 20 different albums, and one of the programs had nothing to do with digital rights management whatsoever. It was added specifically for spying on the consumer by sending a message to a server every time the CD was played on a person's PC.

This didn't just notify the server that the CD was being used, but it specified who was using it and how often. The CD carried no disclaimers that Sony-BMG was going to employ a spy to breathe down a consumer’s neck every time a certain CD was played.

On top of the spyware issue, it was virtually unnoticeable in the computer's applications processes. If you did happen to notice a strange program running on your computer, uninstalling was a rather intricate—and next-to-impossible—process.

Because spying wasn't enough for Sony-BMG, the unknown software created a hidden rootkit in the computer’s operation system. Not only did it bog down the user’s computer, it essentially slaughtered the system’s security. If the rootkit became infected, the virus could live in it undetected because virus scanners typically cannot see rootkit files. In less than thirty years, Sony went from home recording pioneers to a surreptitious purveyor of OS crippling malware and blatantly illegal spyware.

If there was ever a company to bite the hands that paid them, it's definitely Sony-BMG. A close second may very well be Amazon Unbox. This program sounds like a great idea in theory. For roughly the same amount as the retail purchase of a DVD, I can instead purchase it from Unbox and have it downloaded to my computer. I get a new movie release without ever leaving my home.

Of course, I could probably also drive two states over and purchase the same movie from a retail store in the same amount of time it would take to download it to my computer.

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All The Same, The Idea is Wonderful! Right?


Unbox’s DRM and terms of service suffocate any real interest I may have in wasting my bandwidth to download a movie. First, once the movie is downloaded to a hard drive, there is no legal way to copy the movie to a disc since the DRM does not allow any copies to be made. I cannot transfer it to an iPod, writable DVD, or other computer.

Why, exactly, do I want to pay full price for limited functionality? I can buy the exact same movie at the same basic price from a retail store and watch it wherever I want. I can watch an actual DVD on my television, a laptop, a personal DVD player, my friend’s television, and maybe even a random TV in a large retail store if I’m feeling especially cocky.

I’m suddenly giddy with DVD freedoms when I look at Unbox as my alternative.
If the idea huddling my three warring children around a 13-inch monitor with semi-functional speakers were not a deterrent to my interest in Unbox, then the terms of service definitely is. Unbox reserves the right to end my license at any time and possibly take back the movies I legally paid for. There's a word for this sort of unfriendly practice.

Unbox has thrown out fair-use rights, consumer satisfaction, and the potential for growth in new areas in an effort to squelch potential media piracy.

Pirates of Blockbuster

Speaking of piracy, what has DRM technology done to limit the effects of piracy on the entertainment industry? Looking at my local DVD bootlegger, I’d have to say that it’s done practically nothing to impede his little sideline occupation.

Do you want to know how else I know DRM doesn’t do its job? Because I have to sit through that ridiculous anti-piracy commercial every time I watch a DVD. If DRM technology is truly God’s gift to copyright holders, then why are the movie studios trying to shame me into not pirating the movie?

DRM technology is not an effective way to prevent piracy. It just assures the various entertainment industries that you, an honest and law abiding consumer, will maintain that honesty and trust. Of course, honest people are naturally honest and don’t generally wake up one day and decide to become the Scourge of the Internet.

Creating the Digital Criminal

The ridiculous practices of digital rights management can oft as not push a consumer to break digital rights management software on his own devices in an effort to obtain what he considers to be his fair use of purchased content. This appears to be relatively easy according to a number of websites. However, under the DMCA it’s also illegal.

The industry knew DRM was a hoax, incapable of providing any real copyright security, so they lobbied for laws to cover what its technology could not. Three decades after the initial quest to kill home recording, the industry has finally found a way to strangle it for honest consumers. When they couldn’t outright ban home recording, the Media Hoarders created DRM systems knowing the technology was not foolproof.

With the DMCA, it’s now illegal to bypass the DRM or even point out the DRM programs have definite issues. Digital rights management isn’t a tool to protect innocent entertainment companies from rogue media pirates—they’re a concerted effort to rob you of what you're entitled to under fair use practices.

To Sony-BMG, HBO, Microsoft, Disney, and all the other paranoid hosers: We salute you. You’ve made a fine attempt to limit home recording to your individual specifications and making criminals of us all in an effort to preserve your precious intellectual property. It would be beneficial if you also attempted to preserve customer service with the same rabid intensity.

Looking to build your own box? Make an informed decision, and learn more about how DRM can affect you before shelling out that hard-earned cash on your DVD drive.