Making sense of DRM

Here’s a confession: I don’t really ‘get’ DRM. I mean, I can describe what it is, talk about related legislation, and discuss its impacts on intellectual property law and practice, but I don’t really know the extent to which it’s present in my life.

I’m one of those people who total non-techies think is a real techie but who really is not. You may be one of us too. I maintain websites; I don’t create them (unless you want a really ugly one). At my office the line between techies and non-techies is drawn around whether you are scared by “the black screen.”  Back in the hand-coding days, it used to be whether you could write HTML code. I’m on the fence. I can deal with the black screen if you give me guidance with the DOS. I can code HTML but I’m not super fast with dreamweaver, I get lost in php, and really don’t know perl or java — although I’m confident I could learn if I had the incentive. Which is all to say, I think I’m a pretty typical North American “new librarian,” from what I’ve seen.

And yet, I am intimidated by DRM.  I have no idea whether I’ve broken digital locks.  Probably?  Or maybe not? I’m too afraid of getting screwed over to use the iTunes store, and still buy my music on physical CDs, and then load them onto my computer, and then MP3 player, because I know that if my computer crashes at least I’ve still got the physical disc in my basement somewhere. When my old laptop met its maker, I moved everything I’d loaded onto my old computer onto my new one, from my backup hard drive. I have burned copies of stuff for my kid (yeah, like I’m going to give my first grader my original BNL Gordon or TMBG Flood CDs? Ha!). Presumably, I’m a copyright criminal, although I wouldn’t swear to it under oath, because there’s a chance I’m not, just by luck.

I’d definitely be buying a lot more music these days if I felt like I could confidently do so online, but I don’t, and I’m getting used to that. I’d probably watch more “TV” too, if I felt I could easily and safely download series and movies online, but as it is it’s often not worth the time/hassle and that’s okay with me. Once I let iTunes update itself and all my loaded music went kaput, so I don’t allow Apple updates anymore. I’m aware that someday this may cause problems with the program, so I’m on the lookout for viable iTunes alternatives. Basically, I just try to avoid DRM whenever possible, and if that means limiting my intake of some media…oh well. There’s not really much music or other media I can’t live without.

My visible experience with DRM is pretty much limited to swearing at iTunes and doing policy analysis. Oh, and the fact that when I plug my personal laptop into the digital projector at one of my workplaces, it goes straight into the Vista operating system, rather than giving me my usual dual boot screen and the option of selecting the quicker, sleeker Ubuntu linux os.  I assume this has to do with the ramped-up DRM embedded somehow in Vista. But maybe it’s just some other non-DRM monopolistic technology?

See, I don’t really understand it. I don’t know how to get around that straight-shot into Vista, and because I’m just using it to project materials for teaching I don’t really care that much. But I have that niggling anti-DRM grumpiness about it, because it’s restricting my options in a way that a) doesn’t make sense to me, and b) slows me down.

Thus, putting more effort into understanding DRM is on my to-do list.  Probably not till 2009, though, since the rest of 2008 is looking seriously booked up from where I’m sitting. In light of my personal DRM experiences, I really appreciated and enjoyed a recent xkcd comic (see, I read xkcd but I occasionally have to look up the references – that’s the kind of borderline-tech-geek I am). Seeing as it’s titled “Steal this comic” and published under a CC license, I figured it was kosher to repost it in entirety here:

If you go to the xkcd site and view the original, hover over the comic to read the mouseover, which reads:

I spent more time trying to get an audible.com audiobook playing than it took to listen to the book. I have lost every other piece of DRM-locked music I have paid for.

I loved reading this, because it’s my little DRM experience amplified by someone who didn’t just decline to participate at the hint of DRM on media.

SO, here’s the interesting thing.

Last week, shortly after awesome librarian Kim Lawson of the UBC Xwi7xwa Library came to speak with my Info Policy class about traditional knowledge and intellectual property, I noticed this BBC article was posted several places. The article, titled “Aboriginal archive offers new DRM,” reports on the creative use of “DRM” to control access to the Mukurtu Wumpurrarni-kari Archive.From the project website:

The archive uses Warumungu cultural protocols to facilitate access to content. In doing so, the archive mirrors a system of accountability in which many people engage in the responsible reproduction and transmission of cultural knowledge and materials.

The example given on the About page is one of a senior male community member explaining that he is protected by the archive’s permissions controls from seeing women’s stories, which is important to make things safe. I know this type of knowledge access norms isn’t something all audiences can understand, but it’s one we really have to respect, regardless. Every culture has knowledge access rules and norms, and to me it seems a really transformative use of technology to restore control of access to knowledge to communities that have been marginalised.

I’m really excited about oft-marginalized communities being in charge of their own archives and historiography. I’m also very inspired to see the digitization tools being used both to move scholarly communication of dominant “academic” cultures into a more inclusive and equitable distribution model, and to restore to Indigenous communities the leverage to manage their own content in accordance with their own norms.

But is that DRM? I’m not really sure.  And neither are a bunch of slashdotters, apparently. From the technological specs on the website I’m not sure what makes this “DRM” and not just a web archive with permissions controls. Are all such websites now considered to be using “DRM”?  The parenting message boards with different levels of access for different user groups?  My class Moodle site with study groups set up within it? As one poster on slashdot pointed out, this access control is being imposed on users who want their access to be controlled, which is quite contrary to our usual conception of DRM to protect an owner’s financial or moral interests.

What makes access/use restrictions DRM? The type of technology? The intention behind the restrictions? Neither?  From my scoping thus far, there doesn’t appear to be much consensus. From my limited DRM experiences I tend to be fairly knee-jerk DRM-avoidant.  But I can see that whether that is appropriate really depends on the definition in use.

-Greyson

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3 Comments

Filed under copyright, digitization, inclusion/exclusion, IP, preservation, technology, Uncategorized

3 responses to “Making sense of DRM

  1. Kim

    Hi Greyson,
    Thanks for linking to Mukurtu. To answer your question–no this isn’t DRM! Not in the technical sense. But what has happened is that the DRM narrative has so influenced discussion of ANY controls or protocols for access that alarmists automatically sound the DRM alarm bells. I also think it is because the larger binary has been driven by the music industry (and software industry to a lesser extent) so that one can either only ever be a purchaser or a pirate. The “free culture” folks have rightly railed against this sort of corporate control but have unfortunately produced their own binary where “culture” is either “free” or it is “locked up.” So anything that does not fit the western-liberal (small “l”) model of “freedom” get classified as DRM. Which of course then denies the legitimacy of other forms of information management based on other systems of knowledge classification and distribution.

    This is probably more than you wanted!

    Kim

  2. greyson

    Kim, thanks for your response – it was *exactly* what I wanted!

    What a great concise clarification you offer for those of us who are generally anti-DRM yet want to support community controls of access to cultural materials & knowledge. It is absolutely the case that the “DRM narrative” taken over and obfuscated discussions of the finer points of access and use controls and management.

  3. Kim

    Greyson,
    I forgot to mention that I gave an interview on the BBC show “Digital Planet” about Mukurtu in relation to DRM (you can listen to it from the press page of the mukurtu website http://www.mukurtuarchive.org/press.html)–the online article you reference was taken from that interview but didn’t do a very good job of contextualizing.

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