Ding dong! The witch is dead! Digital Rights Management has taken shot after shot, and the recent agreement between Apple and EMI is the killing blow. Like a villain in an old-time western, DRM is down on one knee, saying, "You got me, marshall."
Or maybe not. Come to think of it, DRM is actually more like the villains in early 80s slasher films. Every time you think its dead, it gets back up and starts to chase you around the deserted campground.
But theres no doubt that the Apple-EMI deal will cause a lot of change in both the use and perception of DRM technologies. The fact that the one of the largest online music sites and one of the biggest music companies in the world have agreed that DRM doesnt work and actually negatively impacts sales should lead to a greatly reduced use of DRM technology in online music, movies and software.
However, this isnt really a retreat for the pro-DRM forces. Its really just a change in strategy. I fully expect to see new attempts to add DRM to products and I guarantee that well see more bad bills introduced in Congress that would make it harder to work around DRM restrictions.
And dont believe for one second that the movie and record company heads are now converts to free distribution of content. Theyll stop wanting strict DRM controls around the same time that little kids stop liking ice cream and cookies.
But looking at the changing perspectives on the effectiveness of DRM in music, movies and other copyrighted content got me wondering if well start to see any changes in another area of rights management, namely corporate rights management.
For businesses using rights management, it is a legitimate method for protecting vital company data and documents and for helping to ensure compliance to different regulations and laws.
While rights management isnt nearly as common in enterprises as it is in the content world, many companies do use rights management systems from a wide variety of vendors, including Adobe and Microsoft. These tools make it possible to control who can view certain documents or even e-mails, and can also limit how this content can be shared, printed or even captured to an image file.
However, like the DRM used to protect movies and music, enterprise rights management is hardly foolproof. Most of these technologies can be defeated without too much trouble, either through some savvy computer reconfigurations or through something as simple as a digital camera or camera phone pointed at a computer screen.
Of course, entertainment DRM and enterprise rights management have another thing in common. Neither is really designed to stop the determined pirate, corporate spy or whistle blower. The main deterrent behind all of these forms of rights management is annoyance. The hope is that its too much work to get around the rights management tools, so people will learn to live with their restrictions.
But to me this isnt a strength, either. In fact, it is the ultimate weakness of all forms of rights management.
Most people have a built-in reaction when they run into a problem: They stop using the thing that is causing the problem.
In the case of music and movies, this means avoiding sources that come encumbered with annoying DRM restrictions and turning to things such as BitTorrent and file-sharing networks.
And in the case of enterprise rights management, this can mean that people start to work around your business infrastructure, turning to things such as Googles Gmail and Google Apps to get work done quickly, instead of using company mail and applications that cause extra work through restrictions. And if this starts to happen, you may find that implementing enterprise rights management has actually caused new problems for your business without doing much to solve the problem it was implemented for in the first place.
In this whole debate about rights management, one thing tends to get overlooked. For the most part, people want to do the right thing.
If its convenient and cost-effective to use a legal content source, they will. Well see in a few months if sales of EMI products increase noticeably on iTunes.
The same can apply in business. Good data usage policies can do a lot to stop improper sharing of documents. If you dont treat your employees as little kids who cant be trusted, you may find that you actually can trust them.
Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.