DRM is Not Evil

Although not always perfect-and sometimes downright annoying-DRM and yes, even cookies, have a place in our computing world.

Last week, Linus Torvalds, the father of Linux and the effective leader of the open-source movement, made what, I think, is his most heretical statement ever: "DRM [Digital Rights Management] is perfectly ok with Linux!"

I say bravo, not because DRM is always good, but because we need a rational discussion of its uses. One of the statements for which Torvalds is really being taken to task on Slashdot.org is his assertion that Linux and the GNU General Public License should not be politicized. Hes right, but hes now facing the hard libertarian core of his constituency.

These yahoos are so caught up in the defense—at any price—of what they consider their personal liberties, that they are blind to the give and take technological advances require on everyones part. Not everything is a nefarious plot to invade our privacy. But these folks seem to view anything that stops them from doing what they please with their property as a restriction on their personal liberty.

Most of us have made duplicates of copyrighted material. The digital age, however, brought with it the ability to rapidly and perfectly reproduce all kinds of content and save it to easily transportable media or quickly transfer it to thousands of people over cheap broadband connections. No doubt, this is a boon for end users—but it has also become a nightmare for content creators. And Im not talking about just the companies that sell you books, movies, and music. I mean the authors, filmmakers, and musicians, too. The less a company thinks it can make from one of its works, the less it will pay for the initial work. Entire industries can and will be brought down this way. Those who think that music file sharing is not killing the music industry are kidding themselves. Big music companies are certainly scared. Yes, they made the mistake of not finding a way to work with Napster and Kazaa from the get go. But the ubiquity of content copying these services enable doesnt make it right or even acceptable.

If we suddenly had a way to make perfect copies of objects as big as, say, cars, I imagine that thousands of shiny red Mustang convertible clones would instantly appear on the road. Most of us would find that wrong. So what makes copying and sharing music right? The fact that you cant see it or touch it? Thats a thin argument at best.

DRM opponents say they just want to be able to make backup copies of content they buy, and Im sure this is true in many cases. But its a blatant lie in many others. People copy entire CDs and share them with friends who share them with others and so on. Sometimes people post what theyve copied. Those who stand up for the right to copy freely sound incredibly Pollyannaish to me. Dont they realize that just behind them stand the pirates, snickering?

But lets get back to DRM. It is bad, say many, because in some cases it verifies that you have the right to use the software, view the film, or listen to the music. Sometimes it does this by checking your identity with the license holder which, say opponents, is an invasion of privacy. But is it? When you make a credit card purchase, the merchant gets the transaction validated first, and often the salesperson verifies that your signature matches the one on the card. Now the salesperson, the store, and any other entities involved in the transaction have information about you. Without this process though, you wouldnt be able to make the purchase.

The same nuts who say no DRM whatever the cost are also the ones who block every single cookie. "Everything is spyware!" they cry, "Its all as dangerous, damaging, and invasive as viruses!" Where is the sense of proportion? Sites use cookies so theyll know who you are when you return. That helps the managers figure out how effective their sites are at getting people to come back. This is not all about individuals. Site operators often dont care about you at all. They care just about the larger demographic. Those who think otherwise need to get over themselves.

People who block all cookies also block themselves from receiving many of the benefits sites offer. As with most decisions, cookie management profits from a thoughtful approach. I have my browser ask me about cookies, some of which I accept. I even add certain sites to my list of those from which I always allow cookies. I block other cookies and add sites Im leery of to my cookie blacklist. Not every cookie is evil, though, nor is everything that drops a cookie.

Weve lived with tracking and licensing for many, many years—most recently, with serial numbers, dongles, and the like. Whats so different about DRM other than, possibly, it hasnt been cracked, hacked, and otherwise circumvented to the extent of existing rights-protection schemes? Maybe todays techniques are a little better and harder to break than the older stuff. I can certainly see how tougher protection might annoy those trying to steal the work of others. Why, someone tell me, is this a bad thing?

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