Randy Picker, a principled DRM (copy protection) advocate, had an interesting comment on one of my prior posts about the Sony incident. Here’s the core of it:
Assume for now that you are right that DRM leads to spyware; all that means is that we need to figure out whether we should or shouldn’t favor active protection/supervision environments.
That gets us to the central point: namely the fact that consumers don’t want it doesn’t tell us anything about whether it is in the joint interests of consumers and producers. I spent the morning writing my exam and then will have to grade it after the students take it (no grad student graders for law profs). By far and away the worst part of the job, and I certainly don’t want it as part of the job, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t jointly sensible.
Putting that point slightly differently, consumers may gain more from a DRM world than they would from whatever alternative world emerges without DRM; those subject to restrictions rarely want them but restrictions are frequently welfare maximizing; the fact that one party would like to get rid of the restrictions tells me little (nothing, probably) about whether the restriction is in the joint interest of the parties to the transaction.
It’s true in principle that an arrangement can be unwanted but ultimately good for those on whom it is imposed; but I don’t think that observation matters much in the specific case of CD DRM.
To understand why, let’s look at a case where a similar argument has traditionally worked: copyright. Copyright can be understood as an agreement among all of us that we will not infringe. Even though each of us individually would prefer to use works without paying, we understand that if we all refrain from infringing this increases incentives for authors, leading to the creation of more works we can enjoy. By making and keeping this copyright deal with each other, we come out ahead. (That’s the theory anyway. We all know what happens when the lobbyists show up, but work with me here, okay?)
One of the practical problems with this kind of deal is that each individual can gain by defecting from the deal – in the case of copyright, by infringing at will. If enough people defect, the deal could collapse. This danger is especially acute when it’s technologically easy to defect. Some people argue that this is happening to the copyright deal.
Anyway, what Randy is suggesting is that there might be a similar deal in which we all agree to accept some kind of DRM in order to boost incentives for authors and thereby cause the creation of more works than would otherwise exist. I think that if we weigh the costs and benefits, that would be a bad deal. And I’m especially sure it’s a bad deal for CD DRM. Let me explain why.
First, it turns out to be easy technologically to defect from the CD-DRM deal. Experience with the copyright deal teaches us that when it’s easy to defect, many people will, whether we like it or not.
Second, the costs of the CD-DRM deal seem much clearer than the benefits. Allowing spyware-DRM on our computers will open loopholes in our anti-spyware defenses that will foster more spyware infections. And as we have seen already, spyware-DRM will itself expose us to security risks. That’s the cost side. On the benefit side, we have only the dubious premise that CD-DRM might boost record sales. The costs are more certain, and larger.
The best argument against the CD-DRM deal, though, is that it is inferior to the copyright deal. If we’re going to make and keep a deal of this general type, the copyright deal is the one to pick. Compared to the copyright deal, the CD-DRM deal is a loser: costs are higher, benefits are the same at best, and the deal is just as easy to defect from. If we can’t keep the copyright deal, then we won’t be able to keep the CD-DRM deal either. But more to the point, we shouldn’t make the CD-DRM deal in the first place.
I’ve looked here at the specific case of DRM for CDs, but I think the same argument holds for other types of DRM as well. Leaving aside the mythical side-effect-free DRM systems and perfectly just legal regimes that some DRM advocates dream about, and looking instead at DRM systems and legal rules that could actually exist and how they would work in practice – as I am sure Randy and other principled DRM advocates would want us to do – the available DRM deals look lousy. Certainly they look worse than the original copyright deal.
Now I’m not arguing here that the current copyright deal is perfect or even close to perfect. The copyright deal is under stress and we need to keep thinking about how we might improve it or how we might renegotiate it to work better in the digital world. I’m not certain what the best deal would look like, but I’m pretty sure that it won’t try to lock in any kind of DRM.