FTC Town Hall to Address Digital Rights Management Technologies - Event Takes Place Wednesday, March 25, 2009, in Seattle
DRM is at heart an attempt to reshape the copyright landscape in favor of large media companies, such as Time Warner and Viacom. These corporations are attempting to neuter fair use and first sale so they no longer serve as key consumer protections. Almost every aspect of consumer rights is threatened by one or another DRM scheme. A simple example is DVD video. Most commercial DVDs use a DRM technology known as CSS (Content-Scrambling System). As the name implies, CSS is a technology meant to make media harder to enjoy. It works by encrypting the entire video, and then attempting to allow decryption only by "authorized players". There are two main practical results. First, consumers on underserved platforms on free software platforms, such as GNU/Linux are left out. Free software developers have independently created technically excellent solutions for playing commercial DVDs on GNU/Linux. However, they are prohibited by the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) from distributing this code. This means GNU/Linux users have no options except proprietary, buggy players from corporations such as RealPlayer. The second consequence is that it is infeasible to legally exercise fair use rights, such as quotation. For example, students in film classes can not legally extract even a single frame from a commercial DVD. Doing so violates the DMCA. Media companies have responded with several counter-intuitive solutions. The first approach was simply planned obsolescence. It is technically possible to convert DVDs to work on new platforms (such as the iPod). Rather than allow consumers to take advantage of this, media companies instead asked them to pay again for the same thing. Thus, many people are forced to purchase videos once on DVD and again in the latest format (such as iPod video). Another approach, known as DigitalCopy, is now coming into prominence. DVDs equipped with DigitalCopy contain or link to an extra copy of the video. This extra copy differs from the DVD only in being designed for a different platform. The problem is, such DVDs come at a markup, and consumers aren't getting anything worthwhile for the extra fee. Many DRM schemes also erode the right of first sale. Everyone knows that if you buy a new book, you can sell it to your friend or a used book store. But the same is not possible when DRM enters the picture. If you buy a song from Apple's music store and tire of it, it is illegal to sell, or even transfer it, to your friend. The lesson to learn is that large corporations are not bringing new technologies to the masses. Instead, they are repressing useful innovations (like DVD-iPod converters) and taking away rights that have always belonged to consumers. I believe one of the FTC's natural roles is to protect the consumer from predatory transactions. In this case, that means protecting fair use and first sale from corporate attacks.