Defective By Design held rallies at Apple stores around the country this weekend to protest the company’s use of Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology in the both the iPod product line and the iTunes music store.
As it turns out, these weren’t really rallies, but self-described “flash mobs”. I say “self-described” because by all accounts the turnout was rather poor. A half dozen protesters dressed in yellow jump suits is hardly what you would call a mob. Apple store patrons might have easily confused the protesters for a Devo tribute band.
The group has valid points about DRM in general, and Apple’s DRM in particular, but they face an uphill battle in their effort generate an appreciable amount of consumer outrage. While über-geeks and early adopters are well informed about the issues surrounding DRM, the average consumer is unlikely to protest Apple’s DRM for one simple reason – it works too well.
Most iTunes consumers are vaguely aware that there are limitation to the music they download, but Apple’s DRM policy is liberal enough that it doesn’t seem like a burden to most users. Besides, iTunes users can easily burn songs to a CD and then rip them to mp3 files if they want more freedom. It’s a bit of extra work, but far preferable to the alternatives.
Contrast Apple’s DRM policy with the many and varying DRM policies that media companies have attempted to build with Microsoft’s competing DRM system. The Microsoft solution empowers content providers with the ability to implement any sort of restriction that a media company could possibly dream up. Needless to say, this prospect has media companies salivating (as well as dreaming up all manner of absurd content restrictions). These same media companies are almost certainly not considering how those restrictions might impact their customers or the usability of the content being protected. They’re still living in a world of blockbuster hits and centralized distribution where a few mega-corporations control the market. Which is to say, they apparently have not received their advanced reading copy of The Long Tail
The difference between Microsoft’s DRM and Apple’s DRM is quite obvious. Microsoft DRM caters to the needs of the content industries, while Apple DRM caters to the needs of consumers.
There are many levels of DRM hell, and Apple’s is far from the deepest. Therein lies the problem. The one form of DRM that consumers are most familiar with is not nearly as restrictive as what we can expect to see from media companies in the near future.
Now might be a good time to point out how ironic it is that the very same record labels who want to escape the Apple iTunes monopoly stand to benefit the most from consumer acceptance of Apple’s FairPlay DRM. In fact, label representatives frequently use Apple’s DRM scheme as a prime example of how consumers have come to accept DRM.
The problem with Apple’s DRM scheme is not that it’s too restrictive, it’s that consumers are being lulled into believing that all DRM schemes will be fair, easy to understand, and only moderately restrictive of consumer rights.
It’s worth noting that consumer complacency regarding DRM might just be an American phenomenon. In other parts of the world the issues surrounding DRM are getting quite a bit more attention:
- Norway and other Scandinavian countries are moving to require that iTunes songs be playable on any brand player. While these moves are well intentioned, the end result may be that iTunes shuts down in any country passing such a law. As a result, these laws could end up opening the European markets to Microsoft DRM based services that are technically compatible with more players while simultaneously being more restrictive.
- British Parliament is considering a law that would require explicit labeling of DRM protected content. Listing the limitations of DRM protected products on the packaging could lead to greater consumer awareness of the inherent problems with DRM (impeding fair use, elimination of the right of first sale, poor usability, etc.).
Meanwhile in the US consumers seem to be happily oblivious and politicians couldn’t be less concerned.