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September 13, 2005

Framing DRM

Kevin Marks uses Lakovian frames* to explain what's wrong with DRM to five different audiences, of which the first two:

Computer Users: DRM turns your computer against you
I know sometimes it seems like your computer has it's own agenda, when it refuses to print or copy or find your documents. DRM does this on purpose. It is designed to stop you copying and pasting, printing and sharing things. I don't think you want this.

Computer Scientists: DRM will fail through emulation
One of the basic precepts of Computer Science is the Church-Turing thesis, which shows that any computer can emulate any other one. This is not theory, but something we all use every day, whether it is Java virtual machines, or CPU's emulating older ones for software compatibility.

The corollary of this is that code can never really know where it is running. For a rock solid example, look at MAME, the Multi-Arcade Machine Emulator, that runs almost any video game from the last 30 years. The games think you have paid a quarter when you press the '5' key.

I like this sort of comparative re-framing of debates. It provides for a variety of different viewpoints, acknowledges that there's more than one way to think about these issues and allows you to hit one very big bird many times with several well-framed stones.

* 'Frames' are a way of presenting information or rhetoric that is sympathetic to a specific audience's paradigm. George Lakoff applied frames to political communications thus illuminating how language is used by politicians to very subtly reinforce their point.


Framing is all important. One of our major challenges is to switch the framing of the debates given to the public at large from "pirates" to "fair use". From "content ownership" to "Sorry you can't record this program so you can watch it on another day".

So we need to bang on to users about DRM being 'hijacking' - these people want to hijack your computer.

It's not even just that — what the content providers are essentially saying now is that yes, you can buy this content legally, but you can only use it with some (fairly arbitrary) conditions applied. If one looks at the anti-illegal DVD advertising around, it primarily focuses on quality. There's no mention of reducing the profits of the creators, just that the image will be rubbish and if caught you'll end up in jail. Now, with DRM the tables are turned — you are paying more (than the illegal provision of content) for a more limited product. This is scarcely an incentive.

Another argument that I don't see much (possibly because to most people it's not a real issue) is that these systems are essentially anti-competitive, as certain formats are only usable in certain places. If one buys an iPod, one is locked into legal downloads from iTunes, or no DRMed (which is synonymous with "popular" at present) legal downloads at all. It's like buying a fruitbowl on the condition that it only be filled with fruit from one shop, which may or may not offer you good value in the future.

Apologies if this seems a little "ranty".

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