In the delicate relationship between publishers and consumers, DRM remains a dirty little acronym--one that continues to fester and irritate the paying customer who simply desires flexibility and compatibility across devices for the content they purchased. But some companies that want to protect their creations from copyright infringement feel it's only fair to put digital rights management locks on their ebooks, music and video files, games and other electronic products. So they continue to do so, often claiming that this strategy results in being able to provide the goods at a lower price, which is in the consumer's best interest.
The practice of using DRM locks has so infuriated the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) that it is currently suing the US government to invalidate Section 1201 of the DMCA law. But whether the group wins its litigation or not, there's another pressing agenda the EFF is tackling in the interim that it wants publishers and consumers alike to be aware of: the fair labeling of digital products that come pre-locked by DRM.
Recently, the EFF--joined by a coalition of publishers, rights holders, and public interest groups--sent a letter to the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requesting that the agency require retailers to notify prospective customers of the DRM restrictions embedded in their products via proper labeling. Additionally, they sent the FTC evidence of 22 EFF supporters who suffered buyer's remorse after purchasing products adversely affected by DRM issues and have asked the agency to investigate these claims and remedies proposed by the EFF.
"The FTC has many avenues of response open to it, including initiating enforcement action against specific retailers--which has historically spurred whole sectors into action--or issuing warnings that enforcement could follow if vendors don't clean up their act," says Cory Doctorow, special consultant to the EFF and author of the aforementioned letters and an article on the topic published by the EFF.
As of this writing, Doctorow and his colleagues have not yet received a response from the FTC. He says they'll continue to implore Uncle Sam to act and, if necessary, explore legal options.
Doctorow says digital publishers and authors, as well as customers, should care about this issue and support fair labeling of DRM-locked merchandise. "Many DRM-free publishers signed on to our letter. They understand that the research shows that, where readers can easily distinguish DRM-encumbered from DRM-free ebooks, they buy DRM-free at a whopping 2 to 1 ratio," says Doctorow, who adds that he's on a mission to rid the world of DRM within a decade. "Part of the tactics of this mission are to help people make intelligent, informed choices in the marketplace and to nudge the commercial sector into following the music industry's leadership in abandoning DRM."
Susan Bidel, senior analyst with Forrester Research, supports the EFF's stance. "Consumers can only make informed decisions about what products and services they buy when the terms of that transaction are fully disclosed," she says. "It never pays, over the long haul, to try to fool consumers. They will, however, reward honesty and transparency and choose to do business with those entities that deliver honesty and transparency."
Bidel also feels that fair labeling should apply to digital products not affected by DRM. "Digital publishers and electronic content providers who want to monetize their content through one-time payments or subscriptions should be held to the same transparency standard so that consumers are fully aware of the terms and any restrictions of their purchase," says Bidel.
Dom Caristi, telecommunications professor at Ball State University, agrees that transparency is important but can sympathize with publishers and authors, too. "In a digital world, this is more confusing than it was in the physical world. The ability to share digital content has created new issues," says Caristi. "Content creators have every right to decide how their content may be used. On the other hand, consumers have a right to know before paying for a product whether they are buying or licensing and what restrictions may apply."
Regardless of whether or not the EFF wins its current battles, experts concur that the rule of "buyer beware" applies. "Consumers should make sure they read the terms and conditions of their purchases and make certain that they know what they are purchasing," says Bidel.