Wednesday, February 21, 2007

On Her Majesty's DRM

While most of the attention on Downing Street's epetitions website has focused on the anti-road pricing campaign, an equally interesting part of the exercise has been the call for the government to ban DRM. 1,400 signed up, and now the government has come up with its response.

It'll come as a surprise to hear that New Labour is siding with the big companies. Still, let's give it a chance, shall we?

Digital rights issues have been gaining increasing prominence as innovation accelerates, more and more digital media products and services come onto the market and the consumer wants to get access to digital content over different platforms. Many content providers have been embedding access and management tools to protect their rights and, for example, prevent illegal copying. We believe that they should be able to continue to protect their content in this way.

Thanks for the lesson, although to be fair people signing a petition about DRM actually already know this bit. And while it's true that DRM can prevent "illegal" copying, it also prevents legal copying. And interferes with consumer sovereignty.
However, DRM does not only act as a policeman through technical protection measures, it also enables content companies to offer the consumer unprecedented choice in terms of how they consume content, and the corresponding price they wish to pay.

We're not sure if this is just a joke on the government's part, or if they really believe that. DRM acts in precisely the opposite direction - by locking consumers into one supplier and one format, it means you have no control whatsoever over what you want to pay - unless Tony Blair knows of a website selling legal, iPod enabled major label tunes for the 33pence that we reckon is a fair price?

And since when was it unprecedented choice when I can't move tracks from device to device? Back in the 1980s, I could buy a vinyl record and put the songs onto any number of mixtapes for my own personal use - and often did. Now, if I buy a download, I'm limited in the number of mix CDs I can make with it. I suppose, effectively, having to choose if I'll include Something Kinda Ooh on my HappyFebruary mix, or keep it back in case it fits better on another mix sometime in the future is unprecedented, but I'm guessing the government were trying to use Unprecedented in a good way.
It is clear though that the needs and rights of consumers must also be carefully safeguarded. It is reasonable for consumers to be informed what is actually being offered for sale, for example, and how and where the purchaser will be able to use the product, and any restrictions applied. While there is good reason to expect the market to reach a balance as these new markets develop, it is important that consumers' interests are maintained in the meantime.

In other words: it's okay to chop off someone's rights, providing you tell them exactly how shit the deal they're being cut is. It's up to the retailer if he wants to include a cartoon of someone pointing and laughing at the consumer, though.
Apart from the APIG (All Party Internet Group) report on DRM referred to in your petition, Digital Rights issues are an important component in other major HMG review strands on Intellectual Property, New Media and the Creative Economy. In particular, the independent Gowers Review of Intellectual Property commissioned by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, published its report on 6th December 2006 as part of the Chancellor's Pre-Budget Report. Recommendations include introducing a limited private copying exception by 2008 for format shifting for works published after the date that the law comes into effect. There should be no accompanying levies for consumers. Also making it easier for users to file notice of complaints procedures relating to Digital Rights Management tools by providing an accessible web interface on the Patent Office website by 2008 and that DTI should investigate the possibility of providing consumer guidance on DRM systems through a labelling convention without imposing unnecessary regulatory burdens.

Ooh, a system of labelling. Why didn't you say so? That makes it so much the better.

Karl T, who flagged this story to us, had his own take:
Say what you like about the government, but they do at least have a coherent policy on IT. Sadly, that policy is to make a total horlicks of anything involving IT, particularly where it applies to the rights of consumers.
Today we learn that DRM helps give users "unprecedented choice". As a connoisseur of government "black is white" nonesense, this is very disappointing- they're clearly not even trying anymore.

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