Digital Rights Management. For a lover of all things tech-related, this phrase strikes fear, uncertainty and doubt into my black little heart in a way that no other single piece of technology could; it’s a sort of Orwellian system of world domination and mind control. The rather amusing kicker is that Digital Rights Management, or DRM, is but one step on the road to a modern-day 1984. For those who are blissfully unaware, DRM is the process by which the producers of content restrict the use of the very content they create. From this extremely abstract definition, we can delve deeper.
The perfect example of DRM at work is that shiny new iPod that you covertly listen to while pretending to pay attention to your economics professor drone on and on about supply and demand. While you sit there blissfully unaware, Apple is forcing DRM upon you. When you buy a song from iTunes, you are not downloading an MP3 like many of you think. Instead, you are downloading an M4A, which is a file type that was created by Apple. The songs are distributed in this fashion solely to ensure that you can only use the music that you paid for on their equipment, such as the iPod. The same problem occurs when you download a television show like “Lost” or one of the movies newly offered through iTunes. They can only be played by software and hardware developed by Apple.
In this way, Apple has created artificial restrictions and barriers that prevent you from using the product you paid for. If you had gone to Best Buy and bought a DVD of the show “Lost” or one of your favorite CDs, you could do whatever you wanted with it. You could play “Lost” on any DVD player made, you could make copies of the DVD – for personal, archival purposes, of course – and let your friends borrow them to watch, as well. The same goes for the CD. You could play it in any CD player, computer or car, and rip the tracks into MP3 format to play on any MP3 player, regardless of the brand. DRM techniques vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, and among labels in the record industry and the film industry.
An example of DRM going much further than it ever should have is the recent ordeal that Sony Music put its consumers through. Consumers who bought select CDs from Sony Music got a CD that would play in a regular CD player perfectly. Unfortunately for many, when they put that same CD into their computer to play it, or make a copy, the CD would not let them do it. Sony had added a program that would automatically install onto your system, without your permission, to prevent the burning and ripping of the CD on a PC. Furthermore, they also hid it on the unfortunate users’ PCs by burying it under a rootkit.
A rootkit is a tool often used by writers of viruses to hide what they make on your system. Sony’s rootkit prevented its software from being seen in the Program Files folder or in the Add and Remove Programs window in the control panel. The worst part of the rootkit that Sony installed on users’ computers, without their permission, was that virus writers could hide their malicious code behind the rootkit, stopping antivirus programs from even detecting the virus.
This Sony software was also nearly impossible to remove. Sony even produced a program solely to remove the program from infected computers, but half the time, the Sony-produced program would fail to remove the software and rootkit. Ultimately, many consumers ended up having to completely reinstall Windows just to get Sony’s DRM software off of their machines. DRM is a new technology that is in its infancy, which leaves its future very uncertain. We, as consumers of entertainment in the form of music and film, need to band together to protect the rights we have been given to enjoy our legally purchased media, without interference and potentially destructive limitations.
Daily Nexus columnist Matt Suedkamp cannot watch “Lost” without thinking about Big Brother.