When is DRM Not a Good Thing?

Not surprisingly, Microsoft's digital rights management scheme was cracked in mid-October. It's not surprising because, well, it's Microsoft, ever the target of those looking to test the strength of a 900-pound gorilla. Specifically, version 2 of Microsoft's DRM was compromised, with special attention given to audio files. The code was cracked by "Beale Screamer," an alias inspired by Howard Beale in the movie Network who proclaimed "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" Screamer also provides a DOS utility that strips away Microsoft's DRM protection of audio files. Interestingly, there is no code, "either real code or pseudo-code," contained in the accompanying documentation. According to Screamer, "All that's in this document is a straight mathematical discussion, which should be fully protected under the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution." You may recall the DeCSS case where computer "code" was not given the same First Amendment rights as straight English text, thereby forcing those who wish to publish their cracks to disguise source code in plain English.

Beale Screamer is apparently angry that he/she, under Microsoft's DRM protection, can't make copies of purchased audio files for playback on other devices. Screamer points to apparent injustices opened up by the DMCA that allow publishers and creators of technology greater control over and potential exploitation of consumer rights. In lengthy and well-written documentation that's contained in the author's zipped file, Screamer ably points out the weaknesses of Microsoft's DRM protection and even offers some philosophy behind the crack. "What is bad is the use of DRM to restrict the traditional form of music sale. When I buy a piece of music (not rent it, and not preview it), I expect (and demand!) my traditional fair use rights to the material. I should be able to take that content, copy it onto all my computers at home, my laptop, my portable MP3 player…basically anything I use to listen to the music that I have purchased. I can't do this at all with Microsoft's DRM scheme."

What is Screamer accomplishing here, besides being a pain in the butt to Microsoft? Beale Screamer is attempting to shed light on an increasingly battered DMCA and expose its contradictions and inaccuracies. Screamer states early on in the documentation that "I do not want to create massive copyright infringement, but rather hope to give people the right tools to regain the rights that have existed for centuries with respect to copyright, and are now in danger of being taken away in a most uncompromising manner."

Take for example Apple's free iMusic software. iMusic allows you to rip music tracks off a CD and convert them to MP3 files for playback either on your computer or, presumably, on another device, which is now no longer a presumption with the release of iPod, Apple's portable MP3 player with it's "blazingly fast FireWire connection capable of downloading an entire CD in just ten seconds." What's the difference between copying files from an audio CD for reuse and a music file downloaded from, say, Napster once its legit subscription plan is in place? I can't think of one.

I'm not saying DRM is bad. It's not. Files, for whatever reason, need to be securely distributed and DRM technology provides a solution. It seems to me that locking up a single audio file in a heap of restrictions is counter to consumer behavior and rights under copyright law-and I'm not saying they just want it for free. Convenience is still a major value-add, and while some folks will certainly abuse an unrestricted audio file, most will pay for a single file if they can listen to it on their desktop, in the car, etc. Restricting the heck out of an audio file, whether it's for squeezing every last penny out of it or giving in to distribution paranoia is transparent to the consumer and not good for long-term business.