April 23, 2024

Mossberg Takes on DRM, Urges CD-DRM Boycott

Walt Mossberg, whose Personal Technology column in the Wall Street is a must-read for many influential but non-geeky technology enthusiasts, discusses the DRM issue in today’s column. No much in the column will be new to regular readers here, or to anyone immersed in the digital copyright issue. But of course Mossberg writes for a different audience, and the column serves that audience well by explaining the issues clearly and maintaining a moderate tone.

In my view, both sides have a point, but the real issue isn’t DRM itself – it’s the manner in which DRM is used by copyright holders. Companies have a right to protect their property, and DRM is one means to do so. But treating all consumers as potential criminals by using DRM to overly limit their activities is just plain wrong.

Let’s be clear: The theft of intellectual property on the Internet is a real problem. Millions of copies of songs, TV shows and movies are being distributed over the Internet by people who have no legal right to do so, robbing media companies and artists of rightful compensation for their work.

Even if you think the record labels and movie studios are stupid and greedy, as many do, that doesn’t entitle you to steal their products. If your local supermarket were run by people you didn’t like, and charged more than you thought was fair, you wouldn’t be entitled to shoplift Cheerios from its shelves.

On the other hand, I believe that consumers should have broad leeway to use legally purchased music and video for personal, noncommercial purposes in any way they want – as long as they don’t engage in mass distribution. They should be able to copy it to as many personal digital devices as they own, convert it to any format those devices require, and play it in whatever locations, at whatever times, they choose.

Mossberg urges music and movie companies to use DRM to limit large-scale pirates, while giving ordinary users wide leeway for personal use.

Instead of using DRM to stop some individual from copying a song to give to her brother, the industry should be focusing on ways to use DRM to stop the serious pirates – people who upload massive quantities of music and videos to so-called file-sharing sites, or factories in China that churn out millions of pirate CDs and DVDs.

This is a nice vision, but it’s not really possible. It’s abundantly clear by now that no DRM system can stop serious pirates. A DRM system that stops serious pirates, and simultaneously gives broad leeway to ordinary users, is even harder to imagine. It’s not going to happen.

Although he doesn’t address it directly, Mossberg implicitly rejects the other argument for DRM, which says that DRM can enable new pricing models for content and can therefore foster market efficiency. Mossberg says flatly that consumers should have a broad right to make personal uses of content they have bought.

The most surprising part of the column – remember that this is in the Wall Street Journal – is Mossberg’s call for a boycott of products with restrictive DRM, such as copy-protected CDs.

Until then, I suggest that consumers avoid stealing music and videos, but also boycott products like copy-protected CDs that overly limit usage and treat everyone like a criminal. That would send the industry a message to use DRM more judiciously.

Whether it’s a flat boycott, or just a disinclination to buy such products, this would have an impact on the industry’s DRM choices.

To make it happen, people need to learn which CDs use DRM and which don’t. One way to tell on CDs is to look for the official CD logo on the package. If the CD logo is missing, the disc probably doesn’t comply with the CD standard, and the noncompliance is probably caused by DRM. Alternatively, somebody could set up a website with information about which discs used DRM. It would be nice, too, to have a site with information about DVDs, to keep track, for instance, of which discs force viewers to watch movie previews before seeing the movie they bought.

It can’t be too hard to set up such a site. If you put ads on it, you could probably make a profit. Who wants to build it?


  1. Boycott are like general strikes… they only really have a power with enough momentum and critical mass to be felt and noticed. I suggest that the noticed part is key… The “felt” part is likely to be rolled into their “pirate” statistics and both internally understood (and externally claimed to be) reason for more DRM. If you choose to boycott an album, do two things…

    Firstly, write the band and tell them that you are boycotting their album through such-and-so distributor, and let the band know your gripes. Tell them what you’d like to be able to do with the CD that the DRM disallows. The band has a business relationship with the record company, and enough letters will help get some discussion going on that front. Perhaps you can ask the bands if they have any alternate sources, so that they understand you’re not just gonna go out and pirate their stuff, you really want to have a legal copy and support the band (financially) if they can give you the product you want (flexible use), not the one you don’t want (DRMed-down). Maybe you can even take a hard enough stance to tell them you will boycott all their albums and their concerts, tee-shirts, dolls, posters, or whatever if they are unresponsive. Most bands need money in every little way. Even the ‘successful’ ones are often beholden to the record companies for a lot of money before they ever see their penny.

    The second thing is, of course, write the record company. Tell them that you are boycotting such-and-so product. And tell them why. Tell them that you wrote the band, and that you are boycotting all merchandise and concerts if they don’t work with you somehow to give you the flexibility you desire. Tell them this, if you are so inclined: Tell them that you will boycott ALL their artists and all associated merchandise and concerts if they are unresponsive to your requests. There is little point in boycotting if you don’t get real vocal about it. Not only to your peers, but especially to the folks who you are boycotting.

    Make it clear… if they won’t be flexible, they won’t be profitable. Not by you, anyway.

    Here’s another point… perhaps a side point, that I would like to make since I’m spouting off here already. There is more music out there than what the top-40 stations cram at us. There are literally hundreds and thousands of unsigned, independet artists out there in your community and in communities around the world. Thanks to the communication rennaisance we’re going through right now, there are plenty of ways over the internet to discover and obtain so much music that is outside the domain of the major labels.

    There ARE other options. And it is very satisfying to “discover’ new music, to have a relationship with a small band, perhaps even promoting them when they come through your town on tour, or what not. Tune into some internet radio stations and see what is out there. Find some sites that cater to different scenes, such as jambands.com if you are into stuff like grateful dead, phish, widespread panic, et al. Or if you’re into punk flavor there are sites and stations out there. Or R&B, bluegrass, ambient downbeat techno, whatever.

    Often you will find many bands, such as The Grateful Dead were, that are supportive of “tapers” who tape their live concerts and distribute the tapes through trading. The rule is even-trades or blank media and postage, NO SELLING. And that system works. now media is even a moot point… you can download the data from eachother or central hosting sites. The Dead were the top grossing act going for a while, and yet they got virtually no air-play. Word of mouth and a liberal tape-trading policy were rewarded with sold-out three-night runs at many venues, year after year. SEVERAL bands have live concerts available for free download and resistribution the Internet Archive (www.archive.org). Browse what’s availabe and maybe discover your new favorite band, who knows…

    Okay my 2 bits are spent. Peace through Music!

    Tim LePes

  2. roamnramon says

    Very well put Lawrence! Lawrence’s comments further prove the point that DRM is an excercise in futility!

  3. It would be nice, too, to have a site with information about DVDs, to keep track, for instance, of which discs force viewers to watch movie previews before seeing the movie they bought.

    It can’t be too hard to set up such a site. If you put ads on it, you could probably make a profit. Who wants to build it?

    Granted! I give you Discwatch.com , a site focused on tracking DRM copy protected media. We have news relivent to the DRM issue. We work with user submissions, so if you have bought a cd or dvd that forces you to watch something you dont want to or wont let you make a copy of it, we want to know!

  4. Any proposal which relies on total control of hardware manufacturing will fail. China exists, makes a whole lot of hardware, and doesn’t care a whit about copyright controls. No matter what kind of locked-down hardware-based user-ID’d DRM scheme anyone can come up with, it will be cracked, and compatible hardware with no DRM will appear. Even if/when China one day decides to start respecting copyright, another country with less money and scruples will simply replace it in this capacity.

    It’s true that this kind of DRM could exist in a “perfect” world (in quotes because I sure wouldn’t want to live there), where all hardware manufacture is tightly controlled, but this would does not and never will fit that description.

  5. DRM still doesn’t prevent the output from an iPod or any other device from being recorded from the headphone jack to an analog device and back into DRM free digital media!

  6. Alexander Wehr says

    I have some questions regarding this proposal James:

    how precisely do you get all the software worldwide to work with this supposed signed media boundary free? (it could be used to strip the watermark)

    Do you make computers which refuse to run any “unapproved” software? kinda stifles innovation if it does.

    What kind of inefficiencies are you imposing on a market when you have to apply to a central authority to get your software “approved”? what kind of terrible political brawls like the one over root dns control would it inspire?

    How do you get approved if your code is open and free to both scrutiny and modification from end users? (linux, open source)

    finally, how do you reconcile the tabulation and tracking of individual’s id’s like a soviet block surveillance state? (I’m in the camp that others should know as little about me as possible without my permission)

  7. James Donahue says

    People say that DRM that still inhibits personal usage whale thwarting piracy can’t be done? It can be done. Hardware Identification and DRM-assigned consumers will do the trick. Suppose that I bought 3 iPods, and these iPods have my name on it. Watermarking these songs under my name would allow me to copy a song to any iPod that I own, but prohibit copying the song to someone else’s iPod.

    “This is a nice vision, but it’s not really possible. It’s abundantly clear by now that no DRM system can stop serious pirates. A DRM system that stops serious pirates, and simultaneously gives broad leeway to ordinary users, is even harder to imagine. It’s not going to happen.”

    It CAN happen. All they have to do is to “think” like a computer. Everyone has an ID or a Driver’s License. Why not swipe their IDs the first time when they use the electronic device “A DVD/HD DVD/Blu-ray Player, MP3 Player, Computer, or whatever”, and watermark the content under that ID, so that I can do what I want to do with the media. Also, make it smart enough, so that when someone else tries to install it, it won’t accept until that person uninstalls it.

  8. roamnramon says

    First of all the whole DRM thing is an exercise in futility. For we, as humans, must assimilate any recorded (audio/video) output through a device. Once disseminated through that device, it can be re-recorded through a number of means – line in from the headphone jack, microphone in front of the speakers, video camera in front of the TV/Monitor/Plasma or any other high or low tech method, whether for our personal, mass production, legal or illegal use. Couple that with all the software to digitally remaster any media and you have a tabletop video and/or audio production company. So will DRM work? About as well as a screen door on a submarine!!!!!!!!

  9. http://ukcdr.org/issues/cd/bad/ has been UKCDR’s attempt at doing this. We didn’t put ads on the page for three reasons: we didn’t want to be beholden to anyone, it’s harder to manage money in an organisation than as an individual, and people don’t like them.

  10. It’s a little disappointing that Mossberg shows this ineptitude about the issue, and knowing that so many people buy it. I wonder if these non-geeky techies couldn’t find some more informative middle-ground. Anyway, I frankly think the DRM’ed disc database wouldn’t make it very far either. If a content company produces exactly one edition of something, say a band’s latest release, with DRM, the number of people who will boycott it because of DRM would be fairly small (I would wager). Most of those people would pirate the product, anyway, which wouldn’t help the issue at all.

    I’m sorry to be so pessimistic, it’s just how I see things.

  11. http://www.heise.de/ct/cd-register is such a database, if the music companies use the same copy-protection worldwide it should work for non-german users too. just click on “Datenbank abfragen” , which means “Query database”, “Titel” is “Title” 😉 and “Interpret” is “Artist” in this context.

  12. Are you allowed to show the “Compact disc digital audio” logo if the CD contains both audio and data? If so, perhaps the data porttion contains an autorun program which mangles your CD drive.

  13. Wes Felter says

    Watermarking could be used to track mass copying without hindering personal uses. (The fact that watermarking doesn’t work is irrelevant; many current DRM systems have also been cracked and yet they continue to be used.)

    Many people fear the new pricing models created by DRM, because content providers may stop offering the old models. For example, I can make a fair-use copy of a VHS tape, but for HD-DVD I may have to pay extra to make a copy. This “new pricing model” doesn’t benefit me at all IMO.

    IIRC, SunComm claims that their latest audio CD DRM is compliant enough that it can show the CD logo.

  14. “Instead of using DRM to stop some individual from copying a song to give to her brother, the industry should be focusing on ways to use DRM to stop the serious pirates….”

    It’s a nice idea, but it belongs to a universe other than our own. DRM may succeed at forcing the user to pay a second time in order to play a movie he already owns on his iPod Video, but it’s crazy to think that DRM can stop large-scale pirates. I agree that in a perfect world with perfect DRM, that would be a good idea, but in our world with the DRM that is technologically or even theoretically possible, this proposal makes no sense.