Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Better Solutions, Part 2

Okay, so if we (eventually) have a decent way to get digital media from our home PCs to our TVs and stereos, how do we (legally) get it to our home PCs in the first place?

There are two major obstacles that currently inhibit the distribution of traditional media (music, TV & movies) over the internet: piracy and bandwidth.

Until now, the industry's response to piracy has been Digital Rights Management (DRM). Unfortunately, this approach has been a complete disaster. First of all, every DRM-scheme that has been cooked up so far as been cracked – including that used to protect Blue-Ray and HD-DVD. This means that pirates have been only mildly inconvenienced, while legitimate consumers have been denied the fair use of the media that they have purchased.

In addition to this, the attitudes of the big production companies toward the people who actually pay their salaries is disgusting. From Sony secretly installing rootkits on consumer's PCs to the accusatory and insulting anti-piracy ad the MPAA seems to have on every DVD these days, these corporations clearly see little difference between pirates and legitimate consumers.

Instead of ensuring fair compensation, the result of DRM has instead led to an environment where consumers feel little sympathy for the industry and are likely to have little difficulty overcoming any ethical objections to casual piracy.

So, how should the industry proceed in order to ensure that their artists and employees can be fairly compensated for their efforts?

The first thing that needs to happen is that the industry needs to come to terms with how it markets its products. It is hypocritical to urge people to fork over $20 or more for the latest blandbuster – "own it today" the ads exclaim – and then try to claim that this ownership does not include fair use or even any guarantee that the consumer will still be able to play it a year from now. Note that most people don't care that there's DRM on the DVDs that they rent, it is when they purchase the music or movie that they expect to be able to play it on whatever media-capable devices they own.

The ironic thing is that the industry already has models in place that work extremely well. They just need to smarten up and extend these into the digital realm. Sony's misguided efforts aside, music CDs continue to be sold without any form of DRM. Millions of consumers have ripped their CD collections to MP3 so they can play their favorite music on their iPods, PDAs and cell phones. The physical nature of CDs has meant that it is not cost effective to deliver individual songs this way, but even Steve Jobs is now suggesting that there is no good business reason for record companies to insist that music files be DRM protected. And just recently a rumor has surfaced that EMI is considering making the switch to DRM-free music; here's hoping they do and that the other three big record companies quickly follow suit.

The second model is the one in use by NetFlix. For a set monthly fee, you get access to the company's complete library of (copy-protected) DVDs. Granted this is again a model based on physical distribution, but it's also one that makes sense for digital distribution of video – both movies and serials. Merely by implementing the technology to track and accurately charge for how much of the library a customer can access during the month, distribution companies will be able to make sure that the production companies are also compensated fairly.

Note that neither of these models prevent piracy, but then again DRM doesn't either. Unlike DRM, however, they do not insult the legitimate consumer. Stay tuned for Part 3 of this series where I look at the bandwidth challenge and possible solutions.

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