The Intangible Mindset: On DRM

This is my 1000th post. The numbers are a little off due to some pebkac problems early on, but that’s what the software tells me. So I figure this is as good a time as any to begin to finish this entry, #551. I say “begin to finish” because I’m thinking that there might be a few different issues under the heading of “Intangible Mindset” that I’ll raise in the coming weeks. I started on one idea, but got to thinking much more broadly as I was writing (which is what initially stopped me). Hopefully those other topics will more quickly gel in my mind so they don’t take as long as this one did. For now though, here’s the text of what I had originally started to post:

During some recent reviews of my traffic, I’ve noticed the MSRBOT crawling back and forth across the net linking this blog to a number of outside links, trackbacks and comments; it’s fascinating to see all the URLs pile up under the MSRBOT’s visit history. Among those links is one that leads back to the EEJD blog (Link). The EEJD blog is, according to the blog itself, “Where Law and Technology Intersect”. Perhaps.

I’d already seen that entry, but one of the people who has visited this blog, Ernest Miller, is also quoted, and upon re-reading it and the original from which it’s taken, I realized something: when I’m thinking of intellectual property rights, I suspect I’m thinking in a fundamentally different manner than from how I believe the copyfight people are thinking. What triggered me to this is Miller’s comment, “Epstein is overly thrilled with DRM”. Interesting choice of words.

It occurs to me that if I wasn’t thinking forward to the easy interchangeability of bits and atoms, then DRM would only be linked to those things that we for the most part perceive as intangible. With DRM thus constrained, I find it much easier to understand the copyfight crowd. The problem for me is, people don’t live in the intangible world. They live in the world of atoms; real and tangible stuff. Regardless of how it’s communicated (music, movies, stories, etc), the method of communication involves something real: molecules, photons, electrical impulses, whatever. And I believe it’s here where we have a fundamental disconnect.

I never finished that thought, but recently I pointed out what I perceive to be a problem (in an earlier entry –reLink – and in comments over on ISHUSH – Link); and since my mind has returned to this issue, now is as good a time as any to complete it. That problem is people rebelling against Digital Rights Management when they do not, as far as I know, address the issue of inherent Rights Management. This isn’t a new problem; in fact it’s very, very old.

What I’m referring to when I say Inherent Rights Management (IRM) is the inability for the general user/consumer to duplicate a work which they have received/purchased due to both its tangible nature and their lack of resources and tools in dealing with it in its tangible form. So while someone might proudly claim they release their digital books free from the typical copyright restrictions, they may still cling to IRM to maintain control over the tangible versions of that work.

For example, book publishers can agree to ease restrictions on their digital content because the general concensus is that no significant number of consumers is currently going to read a novel on a computer monitor displaying that digital file, nor are they going to print it on their home printer when it’s cheaper to buy it at the local mega-bookstore chain. From their perspective, I imagine the publishers figure, “Go ahead, release the digital version, it’s great advertising, plays to the crowd and increases sales of the real product that generates our profit”. But when it comes to the tangible version, I have little doubt we’d get a “Hold up a second, partner. That’s not available; we still own the rights to that. What are you doing? You must be doing something commercial, and that’s not allowed”.

They’re relying on issues of practicality. While it’s practical to duplicate a digital version of a novel, it’s currently impractical to use it in that form. Contrast the book market to the music market, where it is practical to use the product in its digital form and where it’s not uncommon for people to duplicate many copies and then “share” them with anyone and everyone.

Consequently, I find much of the current discussion concerning DRM a bit disingenuous. Leveraging tangibility is to me no different than leveraging high-priced lawyers; in both cases the advantage falls to the privileged.

Imagine for a moment what would happen if the RIAA decided to publish – for free in a noncommercial manner – the books of those authors who encourage DRM hacks. I’m betting we’d hear some cries of “Foul!” But why? If I were sufficiently wealthy that I could match the print run and hand the books out for free – a gift to the community – isn’t that a good thing? Ideas and knowledge would be shared in a practical manner which is, afaic, what the Open Source ethic is all about. Seems like it would be a good thing… well, to everyone but the rights holders, I guess.

I’d venture the publishers who leverage their support of the Creative Commons license to gain credibility but who also tag their content with the “noncommercial” condition would have a problem, because such a “gift” would impact their control over the most important part of the content: the tangible product which people actually use.

You see, Creative Commons clearly states that it’s for “people who want to share their work on certain terms“. But isn’t that what DRM is allowing; providing a means by which the music industry can share work on certain terms? How is it okay for one and not the other?

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