The State Of DRM: Is The Customer Right? As of today, Apple is offering all the songs in the iTunes Music Store without Digital Rights Management, or DRM. While the technology was initially developed to keep people from sharing copies of files illegally, it also prevents law-abiding customers from making backup copies of their purchases or enjoying them portably. But is this truly the end of DRM?

The State Of DRM: Is The Customer Right?

The State Of DRM: Is The Customer Right?

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DRM 300; Credit: Tatiana Popova/
Tatiana Popova/

Back in the early 2000s, a bunch of online music services competed to sell music — each with its own form of Digital Rights Management (DRM) and each with its own set of restrictions on how and where those songs would play.

Most of those services are gone now, and so are many of the people who used to run the major record labels.

"They wasted years and years fighting the technology instead of figuring out how to work with it," says Corynne McSherry, a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. She adds that the music industry gradually found that DRM wasn't preventing piracy — just sales.

"I think DRM is inherently not consumer-friendly," McSherry says. "And it's just not necessary."

The record labels were forced to drop DRM because their customers could get basically the same product for free, minus the annoying restrictions, from peer-to-peer networks. Movie producers and game publishers are facing a similar situation, but they seem to have no intention of dropping DRM.

"There has to be some degree of control so we're not just putting content out there in the clear so everyone can copy indiscriminately," says Fritz Attaway, vice president of the Motion Picture Association of America.

An Industry Standard

Unlike the record labels, Hollywood studios agreed to uniform copy-protection standards. Attaway concedes that DRM won't stop piracy, but he insists that it does help keep honest consumers honest.

"DRM really is aimed at helping consumers know the limits of the transaction they've agreed to," Attaway says. "In other words, if they've agreed to a rental transaction, after a certain amount of time, a DRM will prevent them from viewing the movie further."

The question for critics is how much consumers know and when they know it. Four years ago, the record label Sony BMG embedded software in CDs that made users' computers vulnerable to hackers. The only warning was a cryptic message on the CD package, while another buried the message deep in a 3,000-word licensing agreement that only popped up when consumers put the CD in their computers. Mary Engle is acting deputy director of the Federal Trade Commission. She maintains that that's not good enough.

"You need to be very clear with consumers up front about important restrictions on any music or video or other technology that has DRM restrictions," Engle says. "You can't hide those and spring them on consumers as a surprise later."

If you do, she adds, the FTC will "come calling." To spread the word, the commission held what was billed as a town-hall meeting on Digital Rights Management in Seattle last week. The commission staff got an earful from unhappy consumers — many of them avid gamers like Chris Dolphin.

"The honest customers — not the pirates — the honest customers are the ones paying the price," Dolphin says. "And in other situations where law enforcement punishes the innocent to get the guilty, that's collective punishment. That's wrong."

There was a lot of talk in Seattle about creating better DRM that's less annoying for consumers. Attaway maintains that most movie studios did learn some lessons from the music industry's mistakes.

"We are getting content out legitimately, legally in ways that consumers find far more attractive than the illegal content," he says. "And we are competing with free."

Attaway points to the free, ad-supported video Web site Hulu as evidence that consumers and DRM can get along. But the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Corynne McSherry says she's not convinced and adds that she's glad to see DRM wiped from Apple's iTunes Music Store as of today. She'd also like to see it disappear from Apple's other offerings, too — especially the iPhone.

"The iPhone is locked in all kinds of ways that prevent people who buy it from using it in ways they might like to," McSherry says. "They're locked into the app store and ATT. So the DRM is only necessary to make sure consumers are tied to the iPhone in specific ways that Apple can control."

McSherry says it's that control — not piracy prevention — that's the real goal of Digital Rights Management. Which is why it may be around for a long time.

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