HD+ or Why DRM still doesn’t work

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BBC DRM protest image
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While evolution of humanity (abstract term for the whole species) has been quite impressive through the thousands of years, one needs to realize after a closer look, that people (certain amount of in-duh-viduals) on the other hand have continiously proven to be comparably impressingly resistent to learning in shorter time spans. Every now and then legends, myths, half-truths and disproved facts come up, which remain alive for years, decades and centuries and can’t be killed even by superior knowledge.

Up in the corridors of power of the huge media enterprises there seem to be two myths that are vehemently holding up for more than a decade:

  1. Piracy – meaning the distribution of digital media while ignoring the copyright and similar laws – is one – if not THE – problem for monetization of “content” (abstract term for media products, that are meant to be sold)
  2. Digital Right Management (DRM for short) is a powerful weapon against piracy because it grants the rights owner extensive control over what they consider their content and prevents illegal sharing

There are numerous well-written and smart explanations out there, why those are indeed myths (e.g. here, here, here and here). So I just give a short summary:

  • There is nearly no reliable data about piracy and its effects, most of the time the formula simply seems to be pirated copy x price per item = total loss. But it has to be doubted that every prevented pirated copy would result in a legal sale. If you take that into account all the claims made about possible damage for the industry seem at least unlikely.
  • Piracy is treated like stealing – although nobody ever really loses an object (a copy is created) and the only thing that is lost, is a certain amount of money that a company doesn’t get and couldn’t expect in the first place. Now you may find that objectionable but it’s not really an act of stealing. Or is it?
  • DRM always is a technical system, which by definition and design can’t be invulnerable (e.g. there always is a key in public, so it’s impossible to keep the secret sauce a secret for long). Those systems will always be circumvented. Quick, easy, in a customer-friendly way in time for the release.
  • DRM prohibits the sharing and lending. Big deal? Really big deal! If you think about , how you got in touch with the music, movies, books aso. you like, you’ll realize quickly, that friends or relatives pointed you to it. You didn’t just pick it blindly in the store.  Mixtapes, Mixed CDs, book lending are essentiell ways to spread culture. This is also true for digital media, if they’re to be sucessfully integrated with our culture. And never before in history has sharing, copying and reproduction been so easy.
  • Many media corporations have simply overslept the digital trend and now they try to cover up their incomptence in serving the customer by criminalising the lost part of their customer base that wandered off to take the better offer. Prior to iTunes and Amazon (with free MP3s) there only was Kazaa, Napster or the “Pirate Bay“.
  • Some reason, that all those free copies hurt the artists, authors aso. If you strictly consider the monetary aspects this might be possible, but it’s far from sure and quantifiable (see first point). When it comes to distribution ever creator should be interested to reach as far as possible. Through digital channels and low prices this can be done much quicker and better. The music industry showed this quite clearly.

The irredeemables

Many media companies actually got this right. Music e.g. has been sold “unprotected” through Amazon, musicload or iTunes for some time. With movies it doesn’t look that bright at the moment, the big vendors of ebooks use powerful DRM-systems, which even allow them to delete books you bought from your device at any point. And television aparently hasn’t learned anything from the mistakes made by the others. Their magic pill is called CI+ or – as prominently presented by german private broadcasters - HD+.

The name suggests there is a benefit for customers inside, but in fact those +-systems contain nothing but DRM and benefitting from this is pretty much everybody in the chain except for the customer. I won’t go into details, what specifically HD+ can do for there is an interesting (but german) video on youtube. However, if you’re not from Germany this or this article might be of interest to you.

Not only does HD+ hinder you to use the tv signal up to the full potential of your receiving equipment (e.g. time shift), you are also paying for the program that is already paid for through ads and that is treated with DRM work (which also costs money). Hmm.

Well, we don’t want to keep the executives from trying to do so, they tried and still try very hard not to tell you about all those drawbacks with huge marketing efforts. Every customer and user is free to consider the offer, knowing all the facts, advantages and disadvantages, and still accept it. But to do that customers need to know all the facts and they need to be able to get to know them. To keep this information away from the customer until it’s too late is what I consider harmful. And the television industry is not alone with this behaviour: Apple, Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, Valve, Amazon and many more all use DRM in their digital distribution systems. They may call it otherweise but it’s DRM nonetheless.

Still, it doesn’t work, because of all the reasons stated above and probably some more unmentioned here. What content providers manage to do though is to create a generation of media consumers who have understood that it’s not a problem at all not to be able to legally buy media products for unrestricted use. Because there are and will always be illegal providers doing the job. Torrents from “Pirate Bay” are illegal but they are the only digital product comparable to pre-digital products, which we could use freely, take and consume anywhere, could exchange or sell to anybody, without proof of identity. While there is a growing lack of interest in politics we also nurture a lack of interest in traditional media content providers. Loss of transparency leads to a loss of image, which no company should be willing to easily accept, considering all the whining that is going on.

The media industry might be saved, if they started to unconditionally accept the digital platform, which does not know the difference between original and copy, doesn’t  know different release dates in countries and continents, doesn’t support data to be bound to a certain device, software, user or ecosystem and senseless juridical barriers.

In perhaps less than 15 years from now everybody will laugh about the recent DRM skirmishes, recording and downloading their favourite tv shows, movies, books, games and music, remixing or sharing them freely. At the same time no creator of good content is going to starve, everybody gets their share. And they won’t call it piracy or illegal copies, it will simply be culture.

Note: This is a free translation of the german article. While it’s basically the same story there are minor differences in tone and additional information. Corrections are welcome.

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