With the recent release of Windows Vista, Microsoft’s newest iteration of the most used operating system in the world, computer users can improve their system in a wide range of ways. One of the most controversial changes in the new operating system is the inclusion of new forms of Digital Rights Management, or methods used by copyright owners to prevent the unauthorized use of data such as DVD movies or CDs.
Now, users of Windows Vista must have Microsoft approved hardware that employs special encryptions to play high quality content such as HD-DVD or Blu-Ray disc movies on their computer. Microsoft can also disable devices they have perceived to be compromised over the Internet without the user’s consent. Microsoft has claimed that it had no choice but to give in to the demands of the movie studios to include such preventative measures.
The movie industry, represented by the Motion Picture Association of America, or the MPAA, and music industry, represented by the Recording Industry Association of America, or the RIAA, haven’t put the squeeze on just Microsoft, though. While Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Zune mp3 player also have DRM, many other companies have included DRM in their products as well. These include such widespread devices as DVD players, Sony’s Playstation 2, and the ubiquitous Apple iPod.
Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple Inc., has actually spoken out against DRM. In an open letter on the Apple Web site, Jobs said the only reason iPods have DRM at all is because of the deal first brokered between Apple and music companies when the iTunes store was first being created.
“When Apple approached these companies to license their music to distribute legally over the Internet, they were extremely cautious and required Apple to protect their music from being illegally copied,” he said in the letter. “The solution was to create a DRM system, which envelopes each song purchased from the iTunes store in special and secret software so that it cannot be played on unauthorized devices.”
According to Jobs, the most advantageous course for DRM to take for the consumer is complete destruction, though it doesn’t seem like music companies will ever agree to that. And why should they?
“The simplest answer is because DRMs haven’t worked, and may never work, to halt music piracy,” he said.
Internet piracy, in general, has continued unabated since the introduction of countermeasures against it.
“The problem, of course, is that there are many smart people in the world,” Jobs said, “some with a lot of time on their hands, who love to discover such [encryption] secrets and publish a way for everyone to get free (and stolen) music.”
Historically, anytime a new encryption is released to the public it’s cracked within months, if not days. When Sega released the Dreamcast video game system, I remember reading that the designers considered it nearly impossible to use pirated versions of games with the system, but a method of using pirated versions was reported within three days. Already, high quality content from HD-DVDs and Blu-Ray discs is widely available on the Internet illegally for free, and without the headaches that often result from trying to keep all of your hardware compatible. For anyone who cares to look, these protections are simply not effective.
Still, the RIAA and MPAA insist on having such protections, and not without reason. According to the MPAA, the cost of copyright infringement in the year 2002 totaled about $3.5 billion, and the RIAA said it loses about $4.2 billion a year from piracy, though critics argue these figures are inflated. Record sales have continuously fallen in recent years. It’s somewhat ironic to me that record sales actually increased during the reign of Napster, which only allowed for the transfer of individual songs. Perhaps if record companies had seen the writing on the wall and they had left well enough alone they would’ve actually made more money.
But who, really, is the victim of unauthorized downloading? The consumer certainly isn’t. More and more, anyone with access to the Internet can obtain just about anything digital for free if they know where to look.
The artist must suffer some from this infringement on their intellectual property and hard work creating a small piece of our culture. If Internet users download illegally, the artist doesn’t get a portion of the profits for their work, even if it usually is a small portion.
But it seems to me like some artists benefit from illegal downloading, especially music artists. For them, the bulk of their income doesn’t come from selling albums but from selling tickets. The Rolling Stones “A Bigger Bang” Tour, which began in 2005, brought in $138.5 million, according to music industry magazine Pollstar. For smaller artists, the Internet provides an ideal forum for spreading one’s music that would otherwise be nearly impossible. Some top musical acts, such as the Beastie Boys, have actually come out against the RIAA’s position and released their album for free over the Internet.
So, who suffers from illegal downloading? Why, the companies themselves, of course! If movies and music are downloaded illegally, the companies don’t get to take out their substantial cut. They certainly will take whatever steps necessary to protect their interests. The RIAA has begun suing people it accuses downloaded music illegally, though sometimes these people are dead or don’t even own a computer.
But do we really need these companies anymore? What movie studios and record companies, originally created in the beginning of the last century, provide is a method of distribution. Before things like the Internet, someone had to shell out the cash to press records, provide cameras, develop reel upon reel of film, and send it all out to the public at large. This is a distribution method that has worked well for decades. It reflected the interests of both the artists and the consumers.
But with the advent of broadband Internet and smaller, cheaper computers the consumer and artist have outgrown the need for this model of creation. Independent films are regularly outselling big budget blockbusters in theatres and winning Academy Awards. Billions of songs have been downloaded from the Internet, 2 billion from iTunes alone. The public interest has outgrown the need for these corporations. They are castles made of sand, and soon they will melt into the sea.