Pwned, 0wnz0red, punkd by DRM

October 31, 2006

With all my recent ranting about Digital Rights Management (DRM), I thought I should post some of the reasons for the unrest. Then I came across BoingBoing‘s Cory Doctorow advertising the course he’ll be teaching at UCLA this semester. It’s called “Pwned: Is everyone on this campus a copyright criminal?” and the course description sums up the potential dangers of DRM better than I would:

Every garden has a snake: computers aren’t just tools for empowering their owners. They’re also tools for stripping users of agency, for controlling us individually and en masse.

It starts with “Digital Rights Management” — the anti-copying measures that computers employ to frustrate their owners desires. These technologies literally attack their owners, treating them as menaces to be thwarted through force majeure, deceit, and cunning. Incredibly, DRM gets special protection under the law, a blanket prohibition on breaking DRM or helping others to do so, even if you have the right to access the work the DRM is walling off.

But DRM’s just the tip of the iceberg. Every digital act includes an act of copying, and that means that copyright governs every relationship in the digital realm. Take a conversation to email and it’s not just culture, it’s copyright — every volley is bound by the rules set out to govern the interactions between large publishing entities.

Playing a song for a buddy with your stereo is lawful. Stream that song to your buddy’s PC and you could be facing expulsion and criminal prosecution.

Every interaction on the Web is now larded over with “agreements” — terms of service, acceptable use policies, licenses — that no one reads or negotiates. These non-negotiable terms strip you of your rights the minute you click your mouse. Transactions that would be a traditional purchase in meatspace are complex “license agreements” in cyberspace. As mere licensors, we are as feudal serfs to a lord — ownership is conferred only on those who are lucky enough to be setting the terms. Our real property interests are secondary to their “intellectual property” claims.

When the computer, the network, publishing platforms, and property can all be magicked away with the Intellectual Property wand, we’re all of us pwned, 0wnz0red, punkd. Our tools are turned against us, the law is tipped away from our favor.

Imagine, twenty years from now, you have a digital library of all your favourite books. Hundreds of titles, the fruits of two decades of collecting – entirely legally – the greatest works by the greatest writers. Then you switch brands and buy a different computer, or ereader, or whatever, and suddenly the code which these books are stored in decides that you no longer have the right to read the books – books you own, have paid for, wish to re-read. This is the situation that will present itself if DRM issues are not resolved, if we don’t consider all the possibilities right now.

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