Last week at the Usenix Security Symposium, I gave an invited talk, with the same title as this post. The gist of the talk was that the debate about DRM (copy protection) technologies, which has been stalemated for years now, will soon enter a new phase. I’ll spend this post, and one or two more, explaining this.
Public policy about DRM offers a spectrum of choices. On one end of the spectrum are policies that bolster DRM, by requiring or subsidizing it, or by giving legal advantages to companies that use it. On the other end of the spectrum are policies that hinder DRM, by banning or regulating it. In the middle is the hands-off policy, where the law doesn’t mention DRM, companies are free to develop DRM if they want, and other companies and individuals are free to work around the DRM for lawful purposes. In the U.S. and most other developed countries, the move has been toward DRM-bolstering laws, such as the U.S. DMCA.
The usual argument in favor of bolstering DRM is that DRM retards peer-to-peer copyright infringement. This argument has always been bunk – every worthwhile song, movie, and TV show is available via P2P, and there is no convincing practical or theoretical evidence that DRM can stop P2P infringement. Policymakers have either believed naively that the next generation of DRM would be different, or accepted vague talk about speedbumps and keeping honest people honest.
At last, this is starting to change. Policymakers, and music and movie companies, are starting to realize that DRM won’t solve their P2P infringement problems. And so the usual argument for DRM-bolstering laws is losing its force.
You might expect the response to be a move away from DRM-bolstering laws. Instead, advocates of DRM-bolstering laws have switched to two new arguments. First, they argue that DRM enables price discrimination – business models that charge different customers different prices for a product – and that price discrimination benefits society, at least sometimes. Second, they argue that DRM helps platform developers lock in their customers, as Apple has done with its iPod/iTunes products, and that lock-in increases the incentive to develop platforms. I won’t address the merits or limitations of these arguments here – I’m just observing that they’re replacing the P2P piracy bogeyman in the rhetoric of DMCA boosters.
Interestingly, these new arguments have little or nothing to do with copyright. The maker of almost any product would like to price discriminate, or to lock customers in to its product. Accordingly, we can expect the debate over DRM policy to come unmoored from copyright, with people on both sides making arguments unrelated to copyright and its goals. The implications of this change are pretty interesting. They’ll be the topic of my next post.