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'Digital rights management' will strengthen industry's stranglehold over intellectual property.

Chris Evans

Topics Politics

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

A short history of information…

  • 2000 BC: Knowledge is transmitted by word of mouth.
  • 1200 AD: knowledge is too important to leave to word of mouth, here’s the Church.
  • 1450 AD: knowledge is too important to leave to the Church, here’s the printing press.
  • 1710 AD: knowledge is too important to leave to the printers, here’s the Statute of Anne.
  • 1990 AD: knowledge is too important to leave to publishers, here’s the internet.
  • 2002: knowledge is too important to leave in the hands of ordinary people, here’s digital rights management.

The internet has the potential to be one of the most liberating communication technologies since the advent of the printing press.

It offers access to the biggest information resource, available to the largest number of people, in human history. It supplies one of the fastest methods of communication since the invention of the telephone. It allows ordinary people to become publishers, with a potential readership far greater than any best-selling paper novel. And it is one of the richest communications media – supporting not just text, but images, voice, music and video.

Yet this enormous potential is being squandered. No sooner had the technology opened up more possibilities for sharing information than the recording and software distribution industries tried to shut things down.

The recording industry claims that the internet is making music and video piracy too easy: people are buying CDs, turning them into MP3 files, and sharing them over the internet. In our society, music is an example of a peculiar kind of property (intellectual property), the sharing of which is a criminal offence (1). Unlike material property, you might possess intellectual property, but normally you don’t actually own it.

The music industry has responded to what it calls ‘intellectual property theft’ in two ways. Firstly, it legislates against and prosecutes anybody behind anything that might make it easier to share music. This began with attempts to ban the first MP3 player, resulted in the effective closure of the Napster file-sharing system, and most recently led to the imprisonment of Dmitry Sklyarov for developing software to make electronic books more flexible.

Secondly, the industry is developing technologies that will allow it to control exactly what you do with its intellectual property while it is in your possession – otherwise known as digital rights management (DRM).
The idea of DRM is that the industries control such things as how many times you can copy material, when you can copy it, what you can play it on, how many times you can use it, or when it will expire and become unusable. Take RosettaBooks, who plan to offer the Agatha Christie mystery And Then There Were None in a time-based permit edition. It will allow 10 hours of reading, after which time the content will no longer be available. As Robin Gross of the Electronic Frontier Foundation says: ‘We are going to find that the kinds of liberties we’ve traditionally enjoyed in the real world are not going to exist on the internet.’

Natalie Imbruglia’s latest album White Lilies Island was one of Europe’s first DRM-protected CDs in which consumers found the CD would not play on computers (technical problems meant that many consumers couldn’t get it to work on their CD players, either). More recently, Sony began to protect its CDs – only for someone to discover that the DRM system could be circumvented through judicious use of a felt-tip pen.

One of the arguments used to justify DRM is that CD sales are detrimentally affected by file sharing. According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, worldwide music sales in 2001 dropped by five percent to $33.7billion (2). But research by Jupiter Media Metrix suggests that file sharing might not have been the cause. Analyst Aram Sinnreich says, ‘I think it’s a very convenient scapegoat, but in reality [it] is more complex’.

There are a number of factors that can account for the drop in CD sales. For example, a five percent decline is consistent with a cyclical fluctuation since a boom in the late 1990s. And there has been an overall drop in consumer spending, which could account for some of the five percent reduction. Moreover, there is increased competition from other products that means that consumers now decide whether to spend their surplus cash on a CD or DVD, for instance.

If CD sales haven’t necessarily decreased as a result of file sharing, what is motivating the industry to introduce DRM? The music industry is a de facto cartel with five firms owning 80 percent of the market (3). The nature of intellectual property also means that market competition is effectively eliminated. Recent US legislation gives the recording industry a monopoly on distribution lasting for 70 years after the death of the original artist (the period of copyright protection has been lengthened 11 times in the past 40 years) (4). The recording industry is reluctant to surrender this privileged position, bringing them into a head-on collision with new technologies like the internet.

New technology has made it increasingly cheap to distribute music and other forms of digital property. Consider the difference between distributing CDs and distributing cassette tapes or vinyl records. The higher price of CDs might suggest that they are more expensive to produce – but in reality CDs are far cheaper to duplicate. However, it is much easier for the average person to duplicate a CD than to press a vinyl record. Internet distribution lowers reproduction costs through the floor.

Conscious that the ruthless pursuit of profit is not the in thing today, the recording industry was quick to hide behind artists’ rights – arguing that they were merely standing up for the poor musicians who were threatened with poverty in the face of internet piracy. Yet all the evidence is that consumers are quite happy to pay for their music (as they are for internet access) provided it is supplied to them in the most flexible way. (And you only have to look at how quickly an artist gets dumped if his record sales fall to see that artists’ wellbeing is not top of the record industry’s priorities.)

The real power of the internet lies in its capacity to make life easier and better – making it easy to distribute intellectual property. DRM is designed to make life harder and more restrictive – making it harder to distribute intellectual property. If DRM gets established, the flexibility of transferring music between your CD player, computer, and digital player will soon be a thing of the past.

Digital rights management is not the solution. Perhaps we should ask if maintaining CD sales is any more important than was maintaining sales of horseshoes with the development of the motorcar?

Dr Chris Evans is co-author of The Internet: Brave New World? (Hodder & Stoughton, 2002). Buy this book from Amazon (UK)

The Internet: Brave New World? will be launched in London on Tuesday 18 June 2002. For further information, email

(1) See Copyright and Wrongs, by Chris Evans

(2) Head to head: Music Copying, BBC News Online, Tuesday 16 April 2002.

(3) See Online Goodies, London Review of Books, J Lanchester, 24 (8), 25 April 2002

(4) See ‘Copy Catfight’, J Walker, Reason, March 2000

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Topics Politics


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