Landmark Study Concludes That DRM Adversely Affects What We Can Legally Do

It can be called the study that pointed out what many have known all along. DRM has been adversely affecting what consumers can do with their legitimately paid for content. That’s a conclusion drawn by a Cambridge study that many are already reading about.

Note: This is an article I wrote that was published elsewhere first. It has been republished here for archival purposes

The study had some interesting conclusions. In the conclusions, the study repeatedly says that “Although DRM has not impacted on many acts permitted by law, certain permitted acts are being adversely affected by the use of DRM” (pg. 100), “This is in spite of the existence of technological solutions (enabling partitioning and authentication of users) to accommodate those permitted acts (privileged exceptions)” (pg. 103), “Beneficiaries of privileged exceptions who have been prevented from carrying out those permitted acts (because of the employment of DRM) have not used the complaints mechanism set out in UK law.” (pg. 104) (the study also notes that those who were contacted either weren’t aware of the complaints mechanisms or that the complaints mechanisms is overly complicated and impractical), and “Article 6(4) of the Information Society Directive put an onus on content owners to accommodate privileged exceptions voluntarily. On a positive note, voluntary measures have emerged in the publishing field. However, not all content owners are ready to act unless they are told to do so by regulatory authorities.” (pg. 105).

Those were the actual conclusions by the study, but some reports had drawn their own conclusions from the study – namely Ars Technica which says that DRM drives us to piracy. While this conclusion isn’t necessarily one of the original studies conclusions, it’s not entirely off base as they site the story on page 47 where a visually impaired user paid for an electronic copy of the Bible on Amazon. When Lynn Holdsworth loaded the book into an ebook reader, the DRM prevented the act. When Amazon was contacted, Holdsworth was referred to the publisher. When Holdsworth contacted the publisher, the publisher referred Holdsworth back to Amazon. Faced with the runaround, the ultimate decision was to simply download an unauthorized version that would be free from the DRM and readable via the reader.

The study discusses how the hope of DRM was that it would increase consumer choice. DRM, was originally sold as a solution for rights holders to give consumers choice. The nightmarish scenario would be that, instead, everything would be locked down and impeding consumer choice. Ultimately, neither scenario played out. Too many consumers ultimately opted toward either purchasing content from non-locked down sources or simply ignoring anti-circumvention laws and circumventing the DRM anyway.

Unfortunately, and puzzlingly so, this study doesn’t seem to cover how DRM affects business. Not even those who innovate from content, but much rather, how those that sell DRM encoded content in the first place because it can ultimately affect consumers in the end. Since this study spans multiple years, it would be sufficiently within the range of the long line of music stores that went out of business – probably as a result of DRM. 2007 and 2008 were pretty bad years for such stores which saw giants either shutting down entirely or simply fleeing the DRMed music service and opting for DRM-free music. Wal-Mart last year, left the DRM music business last year. Other casualties have included MSN and Yahoo’s music service. Ultimately, it caused much disturbance mainly due to the fact that the DRM servers would be shut off, effectively terminating any purchases made by consumers that involved DRM. This left two giants left in the market: iTunes, which enjoys a near-monopoly of the DRM music market, and Napster, which, when we last checked, is scrambling to find ways to stay in business. Meanwhile, services like eMusic, Beatport, Audio Lunchbox and plentyof others seem to be doing just fine. Not surprisingly, iTunes have been working to break away from the use of DRM themselves. All that is highlighting the fact that even major record labels have been starting to shun DRM – a major difference between now and when iTunes landed the major deals between the big record labels. This last note that copyright holders are beginning to move away from DRM was noted in the study.

In fact, what was also mentioned in the study was that it is up to the major record labels to provide diversity for consumers when using DRM. The fact that it would require legislative action to do so doesn’t provide comfort to many who know that the copyright industry has already been trying to get users disconnected in both England and in France. Since the legislative approach seems to be circumventing the will of Europe to recognize internet access as a right – a move almost primarily backed by the copyright industry – the political will doesn’t really appear to be there to provide consumers choice in terms of DRM.

What some can safely argue is that DRM provides control to rights holder in terms of what devices you can listen your content on. This has been a fear by Canadian observer Russell McOrmond for years that DRM is also an effort to control how consumers can use their content. Unsurprisingly, when it comes to a music marketplace, there’s the appearance of a monopoly or a market where one entity controls a vast portion of the DRM music market place. By looking at iTunes, one could easily assess that DRM merely creates a monopoly-like market place where one walled garden will rein supreme. It’s not hard to argue that more people listen to an iPod than, say, Microsoft Zune when discussing controlled content.

Still, in spite of it being a long read, the study is worth referencing for years to come if DRM continues to play a major roll in the copyright industry. If anyone wants to argue that DRM causes problems, they now have a study that has over 100 pages to back their claim up.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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