Imagine the outrage that would occur if one day every commercially manufactured DVD suddenly stopped working. The media would have a field day interviewing parents with crying children, upset because they can’t watch Finding Nemo for the 200th time. Congressional hearings would be scheduled to solve the “DVD problem”. Consumer rights advocates would mobilize urging media companies to do the right thing and either fix the problem or provide consumers with a full cash refund for every DVD purchased.
It’s an unthinkable scenario that is highly improbable in a world of physical media products like DVDs. And yet, it is exactly the sort of thing that can happen in a world of digital media products protected by proprietary Digital Rights Management (DRM) schemes. In fact, it’s a scenario that’s playing out right now. Late last week consumers who had purchased videos from the marketplace on Google Video received notice that their videos will become unplayable on August 15th.
There’s no indication of how many videos Google actually sold, although based on the failure of the service we can speculate that the number was quite low. Regardless of whether Google sold one video or one million videos they should make a commitment to adequately compensate consumers who were lead to believe that they were purchasing a perpetual license to watch the videos.
Instead, Google is offering credits for merchandise purchased from online stores that make use of the Google Checkout system. Consumers have been notified they have 60 days to use the credits to buy unrelated merchandise whether they need it or not. Consumers who take advantage of this “bonus” will end up paying shipping and sales tax in addition to the money they’ve already shelled out for the now dead Google video products. This is clearly not adequate compensation. Nothing short of a full cash refund would be adequate compensation.
Google’s credit scheme sounds suspiciously like the company is using the failure of one service to promote another failing service (remember when Google Checkout was going to be a PayPal killer?).
This is the most blatant example yet of why digital media products are a bad deal for consumers. And yet, something tells me this is only the tip of the DRM iceburg. I suspect we’ll be seeing many similar incidents in the years to come.
It was just last November when Microsoft released a new media player that didn’t support the company’s own PlaysForSure DRM format. To Microsoft’s credit they continue to support the PlaysForSure DRM scheme for third parties, even while they market and promote the competing (and incompatible) Zune player and marketplace. But what happens when Microsoft’s PlaysForSure partners abandon PlaysForSure? At some point in the future PlaysForSure music collections could become unplayable.
As long as media companies insist on using DRM to protect their content we need some level of consumer protection to prevent this sort of thing from happening in the future.
At a minimum we need clear Labeling of DRM protected media products and related DRM enabled devices. The labels should clearly indicate:
- What DRM scheme is used to protect content.
- What devices are supported.
- What restrictions apply related to playback on portable devices, copying for personal use, duplication (ie, can I burn a DVD of the video I downloaded?), and use on multiple computers.
- Whether or not the consumer is allowed to make backup copies of the content
- Whether or not the consumer has the right to re-download the content if it should be lost or damaged.
I’ll go even further and suggest that we also need consumer protection laws that clearly spell out the remedies consumers can expect when a vendor who sells perpetual licenses decides that perpetual doesn’t mean forever.
Media companies insist that they need to use DRM to protect their intellectual property rights. Media companies aren’t the only ones with rights. The consumers who purchase their products also have rights that need to be protected as well.