Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Give me convenience or give me death...

I've been thinking about DRM and I've come to the conclusion that it isn't entirely bad. I realize this will make me a heretic in some circles, but I think there is a place for digital rights management.

As a matter of principle, people should have control over their own intellectual property.

For instance, when I post a paper on the Web, I don't want some 9th grader plagiarizing my paper and submitting it as his own intellectual work product. So I restrict copying. Is that so evil?

If we lived in a perfect world there wouldn't be any plagiarism and there wouldn't be any DRM. But I try to keep at least one foot firmly planted in the real world where cheating is rampant. High school students freely admit to cheating and graduate students aren't much better. See or this CNN article for some statistics. My guess is that high school students admit cheating more readily and that older students are simply more guarded in their responses.

I'm not out to make it impossible for someone to plagiarize my work, just less easy. If someone wanted to type it out long-hand, I cannot stop that. But I can at least make it less likely that I will be the one they plagiarize. Maybe that's a silly moral distinction.

Speaking of silly moral distinctions, a while ago I read Richard Stallman's attack on open source DRM, and I don't find it very persuasive. Stallman is widely credited with starting the Free Software movement and helped the original GNU public license.

In an interview with the Register he said:
[If Digital Rights Management (DRM)] is open source, it might actually be worse than proprietary DRM, and he issued a rallying cry for free software campaigners that DRM is incompatible with freedom....

[Stallman draws] a sharp distinction between "open source" and the free software movement. This is more than mere semantics...because it's a distinction that reflects very different philosophical and moral approaches to writing software.

"The values of the Free Software Movement are the freedom to cooperate, and the freedom to have control over your own life. You should be free to control the software in your computer, and you should be free to share it," he sums up.

"The weakness of the 'Open Source' approach, is that it has been designed as another way to talk about the issues, one that cites only practical values. It agrees with the conventional attitude that what matters about software is what job it does, and how much money it costs. That's exactly the same attitude Microsoft wants you to take."

"Both 'open source' and proprietary developers are saying that convenience matters - but we're saying freedom and community matter more. We're not saying convenience doesn't matter, but there's more than just having a reliable and powerful program."

"I'm willing to undergo the tremendous inconvenience to create a free program that's a replacement for a proprietary program. That's why we have the GNU/Linux system, because a lot of people were prepared to make practical sacrifices so we can have that freedom."

Now here's where this underpins the DRM discussion.

Stallman says that the if you accept the proposition that 'open source' is good because it results in more powerful and reliable software, this makes 'open source DRM' worse than proprietary DRM. As he explains -

"If you think that the important thing is for the software to be powerful and reliable, you might think that applying the OS development model to DRM software is a way to make DRM powerful and reliable," he explains.

"But as far as I'm concerned, that makes it worse - because it's job is restricting you. And if it restricts you reliably, that means you've been thoroughly shafted. |Register| (emphasis added)
I think my first problem with Stallman's rant is that it assumes that freedom is the highest good and that any incremental encroachment on freedom is to be resisted absolutely. But freedom is a broad concept.

The traditional analogy made in property law is that ownership is a bundle of sticks. And you can give some of the sticks away while retaining others. This is especially true with good DRM software. You can give people the ability to view and print, but not copy. Or you could give them a 30 day trial or you could limit the features on a free trial.

As a consumer, I always wish to be given stuff for free. But as a producer of content, I want to be valued and recognized for my contributions whether that is academic prestige for a clever argument, my copyright respected for a well-written piece, or remuneration for a fancy piece of software.

Living with other people is always a negotiation and we give up some freedoms for the sake of the community, such as not being allowed to yell "FIRE!" in a crowded theatre due to the negative consequences. For most of us, that's not a huge imposition on our freedom, we don't even miss it.

If it really bothers a person, then they can go live on a mountain by themselves. Stallman strikes me as the hermit on the mountain yelling down to me that my simple-minded acceptance of open source DRM will spell my doom and I obviously don't value my freedom if I surrender it so easily.

I think Lawrence Lessig strikes a more balanced approach later in the article.
"If all one says is (a) 'Sun's openDRM is great,' that's praising DRM," says Lessig . "But if one says (b) 'we should live in a world without DRM, and we should be building infrastructure and laws that render DRM unnecessary, but if we have DRM, then Sun's is better than Hollywood's,' then that's not 'praising DRM' but identifying a lesser evil. Again, what I did was give a speech at Sun conference where I said (b)...

"There's no disagreement about where we should end up - No DRM."

"The only real disagreement is about the dynamic consequences - how this new kind of DRM affects the ecology for DRM generally. About this, I think honest people have to say no one knows, but we each have our own hunch. My view is openDRM pollutes the control freaks' plan so significantly that it can't achieve what they want - a general infrastructure of control built into the technology. Of course, I could be wrong about that."...

"There is no doubt some version of DRM is with us over the next 5 years at a minimum. I want it to be possible to wage the war for free culture in that space as easily as it can be waged in this world."

"We can win the [war] against it without eradicating DRM from every corner of cyberspace. Instead, I view 'the battle' about DRM much like I view 'the battle' over free software. Free software (in the Stallman sense of that term) 'wins the battle' when it is the major platform upon which software development is done. In that sense, free software has already won in certain important fields of battle, and in that sense, I certainly think free software will 'win the [war].' |Link|
I have to side with Lessig on this one. I think Stallman needs to come back down to Earth.

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