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Who owns your record collection?

The current issue of PC Plus includes a feature by yours truly on the subject of Digital Rights Management technology; the basic argument of the feature is that DRM isn’t evil in itself, but rights owners – record companies, film studios and so on – find it hard to resist the temptation to abuse DRM. For example, in a case that popped up after the article went to print, TV networks wanted to use DRM to limit the use of personal video recording equipment; they wanted your Tivo to delete any stored episodes of Six Feet Under when the next episode aired. I’m quite proud of it and of course, PC Plus is a top magazine, so you should run to the newsagent and buy a copy immediately ;-)

One of the things I like about PC Plus is that when I write an article, I tend to get emails from readers with strong opinions and interesting perspectives; the following message, from CHG, is no exception and I’ve reprinted it here (with the author’s permission).

I think that what is happening with DRM is both immoral and bad for the industry. Where would the industrial revolution have got in the 19th century if we hadn’t had standards? It is bad enough having 4 incompatible types of light fitting, and that’s without counting strip lights. Imagine having to buy a new set of spanners every time you bought nuts and bolts from a new supplier. Image Vinyl Records that you had to have a different make of record player to match each record label (as you mentioned), or only being allowed by buy petrol from Ford Garages if you had a Ford car. This is where the stupid greedy fat cats in suits are trying to take us – the uncreative types. The issue of region coding DVDs typifies what is wrong with the media industry.

I like the analogy of buying an electric drill. Imagine my reaction if I got home only to find that it would only work if I bought my electricity and drill bits from that manufacturer. If I buy a drill, I just expect it to work. I don’t want to read a complicated operator’s manual, it has to work on any electrical supply, accommodate standard drill bits, and be reliable. Other members of my family can use it, and I can even lend it, at my risk, to my neighbour for a job. If after much use it fails, but I feel it gave me value for money, I’ll be happy to buy a replacement from the same manufacturer, otherwise I’ll go elsewhere. The
only limit is that I cannot easily make illegal copies and sell them, and if I did I’d expect the law to get me.

Now, can I treat software or music the same way? I did not ask for all these stupid music formats, or operating systems, I just want to buy software and music in a merchantable form that will not degrade over time, and expect both the right and ability to play it on whatever music playing device I have, both now and in the future (I program in Java for that reason). That’s fair. I am after all only asking for the same rights as I’ve had from books all my life. I would not tolerate each publisher inventing their own alphabets or vocabularies, and they’d go bust very quickly. Secondly, I don’t expect manufacturers to deliberately corrupt products in such ways that they play less reliably or not at all. If I buy a book written in English in the UK, I still expect to be able to read it on a beach in Florida, but can the same be said for a DVD?

We are talking about fundamental principles, and the issues about why so many countries adopted the metric system.

There are two types of piracy. There’s the commercial crooks who deserve to be caught, and then there’s the members of the public. They know that when they buy music, only pennies get given to the original creators of the artistic work, and that most gets taken by greedy companies which are top heavy with non-creative clowns, coupled with the shops that for most of the week stand empty running up costs. If artists were any good, they would have the confidence to completely bypass the music companies, allow reasonable cost downloads, and in turn make a much bigger return on each copy sold. Everyone would be happy. We need open standards. Incidentally, every CD I have is legal, but I still know I’m being ripped off.

As it happens, I’m a software developer, and I take a pragmatic view to licensing. My aim is to charge a fair and affordable fee, and provide incentives for registered legitimate users, and to freely publish my file formats. If customers think your prices are a rip-off, then you are just encouraging piracy, since the customers will feel less guilty if they think you are trying to cheat them. I’d have to double the cost of the software in order to supply dongles with every copy, while at the same time annoying customers, and selling fewer copies; but the dongle supplier would get rich. If the software is no good, even the pirates won’t copy it, but if users like it and find it useful, you will sell more copies, and some who started off with illegal copies may well wish to upgrade.

Given the low cost of manufacture, as against original development and continuing support, what is a fair price for an office suite, an operating system, or a photo editing program? At present different manufacturers clearly have very different ideas on that. How big are their development teams as against their marketing/management teams?

I have looked hard for market research on prices vs piracy levels, but I’m not aware of anyone having bothered to do any, since that is not the way the “Suits” think.

It is about time Joe Public stood up against the fat cats and stopped buying their products. They’d soon change then. The fundamental issue is: “If I’ve bought a product, I expect the ability to use it, now and in the future”. Surely if a manufacturer tries to block that right, I should in turn have the right to sue them.

Some interesting points there, and I’d appreciate your comments.