Why we must be apprehensive about DRM and digital locks

This little piece of news hasn’t yet got much coverage in the popular press, but it should. It shows why Canadians (and everyone, really) must be concerned about digital locks.  Librarians and lawyers are the ones taking note of it right now, but it’s an issue we should all worry about:

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/#!/librarybazaar/status/139008379023667201″]


Yes, that’s right – as Michael Geist reports, if you are Canadian and have ever purchased music through Napster Canada, then you run the risk of losing access to content you have paid for:

These downloads are DRM-encoded WMA files and can be backed up by burning them to audio CDs. Doing this will allow you access to your music on any CD player and generally have a maintenance free permanent copy. If you do not back up your purchased Napster music downloads by burning them to CD and you later change or reinstall your computer’s operating system, have a system failure or experience DRM corruption, then the downloads will stop playing and you will permanently lose access to them.

(Source: Napster Canada PR via Geist’s blog)

Let’s put this into perspective:

  • Customers have purchased items (music, objects, widgets, whatever) from a company with the assurance that these items can be accessed.  But the use of these music files are limited by a lock that the company will no longer support now that it has pulled out of the market and been bought by a competitor.
  • Customers have been advised by the company to effectively circumvent their digital locks if they want to continue listening to their music.  

I suppose that Napster Canada/Rhapsody is acting in good faith when they explain to Canadian customers how to ensure that the content they have already purchased will always be accessible. Napster/Rhapsody has informed customers that all they need to do is copy the data to audio CDs to ensure that the music can be played even if the digital lock on the file is ever corrupted. But does anyone else find it a tiny bit illogical that a company that normally espouses the use of digital locks is now effectively telling its customers to break the law and circumvent the lock in order to make sure they will always be able to access this music?

Digital Rights Management is something we must be wary of.  DRM limits the consumer’s rights to the content he or she has purchased; it “manages” rights by taking them away from the consumer. This is of particular concern in Canada, when so many organizations are subsidiaries of larger companies located elsewhere. If Napster pulls out of the Canadian market, will the digital locks that limit access to the content you purchased still be supported? It seems not. If Amazon were ever to pull out of the Canadian market (which is an unlikely scenario, but a worthy point to make), would its digital locks that limit access to the content you purchased still be supported? That would be up to Amazon to decide.  Digital locks keep your purchases at the mercy of the vendor, which is reason enough to oppose them.

Copyright is a mess, especially in Canada.  The law is antiquated and it does need an overhaul to actually work in our digital landscape.  But DRM and digital locks place an undue burden and risk on consumers (be they individuals, families, or libraries), most of whom are law-abiding citizens, respect intellectually property and rights, and do not copy content.


Post script: Am I suggesting we back out of all e-content on account of DRM?  No, I’m not. What I’m trying to show, like so many others, is that the system is out of balance right now and will remain so in the future.  Advocacy is required to fix this.