As more and more media, beginning with music and now video, becomes distributed over the Internet, problems begin to surface. The most pertinent problem surrounds the illegal duplication and distribution of digital media, also known as piracy. To counteract piracy of digital media, the respected companies of music, TV and film have implemented a collection of technologies known as Digital Rights Management, or DRM. In a nutshell, DRM protects the digital media that you’ve purchased, whether it be through iTunes, the Xbox Live Marketplace, Amazon.com, etc., and prevents those files from piracy. Although the intentions of DRM are harmless, in reality, DRM and the methods used by these companies becomes a major issue, while at the same time revealing the obvious generation gap between these companies and its users.
To better understand the complexity of the DRM debate, let’s narrow the situation down to the music industry, which has been ankle-deep in this issue for some time now. The Recording Industry Association of America – voted the worst company in America by the Consumerist online – represents the music industry and enforces the DRM technology on the industry’s behalf. However, the RIAA has been heavily criticized for the way in which they are trying to prevent piracy – suing random individuals for copyright infringement, mainly as a scare tactic aimed at other people who illegally download music. The RIAA are also considered to be one of only a handful of companies that treat their paying customers as if they were criminals. The bottom line is that while they have every right to fight piracy, their strategy to prevent it does not work and definitely does more harm than good. Instead, what these companies have to do is not try to fight this change in vehicle, but instead learn to adjust and adapt to it.
In February of this year, Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs wrote an online essay – or blog entry – on the state of DRM and the online music business. In the essay on Apple’s website, he made a couple good points. One point was that 90 percent of music sold is in the form of physical CD’s that are completely DRM free. A second point he made was that DRM has never worked and will never work because there are ways around it. The fact that only music that is sold online has DRM, shows that these music companies do not know how to handle the relatively new Internet medium and are doing whatever they can to resist this inevitable change in the way people listen to music. Jobs then goes on to say that the “big four” music companies – Universal, Sony BMG, Warner and EMI – required Apple to implement their FairPlay DRM technology on the iTunes music tracks. If given the opportunity, Jobs said, Apple would drop DRM from their music tracks in a “heartbeat.”
Fast forward to just last week, when Steve Jobs made a startling announcement that Apple and EMI had decided to offer DRM-free music at the cost of $ 0.30 more than regular tracks with DRM. While this may just be an experiment for Apple and EMI to see if people are willing to pay more for tracks that are DRM-free, this is definitely a positive change in direction, not just for online music, but the way in which companies handle content on the Internet as well.
But as of now, the apparent generation gap between the content creators and the end-users has the Internet community in an uproar. These companies will quickly have to realize that the shift to online content is inevitable and therefore must change their business models to accommodate it, rather than try to resist it. The issue of DRM will hopefully become more present in the public’s consciousness and maybe then these old-school executives will finally get a clue and alter their ways. Also looking to the future, while the music industry scrambles to deal with piracy, another rapidly emerging media will face the same issues – online videos. As online videos become progressively more mainstream, the TV content companies and the movie studios must also face the challenge of adaptation.