I am a free software advocate and, to a much smaller extent, a free software producer. As such, copyrights are important to me—I rely on them to stop people proprietarising free software and protecting their inherent freedoms.
I used to write a bit of music too. However, piracy was not a problem for me. The difficulty I had was getting people to listen to my music, not stopping them from copying it. A new Pink Floyd I was not.
However, I understand that there are musicians, and producers of it, who create more popular music; and that they choose to charge for it. That is their right, and I have no problem with that. They also wish to use copy protection technology to prevent improper copying. I have no objection to that either.
In fact, DRM and free software are by no means mutually exclusive in either technology or philosophy. Though a couple of incidents have recently happened for me to think about it further...
There are those who insist that copyrighting their work entitles them to some form of monetary payment when the work is copied. There are people who will attempt to copy their work without making that payment, and will do so with full knowledge of what they are doing and the intent to deprive the copyright owner of that payment. This is theft in all senses of the word. Upon this basis, I see no problem in putting DRM technology in place as I see no problem placing locks on my front door to prevent burglary. However, I do have a problem if this technology is being used in an improper way, if it is being used to control. There’s a big difference between using technology to lock burglars OUT of your house, and using the same technology to lock you IN and thereby forcing you down a particular path.
Back to the two incidents that inspired this entry. The first was that a school friend of my daughter’s came for a “”"sleep-over"“” at our house last night, and as an offering she bought over a PS2 soccer game to lend to us for a month or so. This will provide hours of entertainment for both of my children during the long upcoming winter nights and at no cost to myself. We will reciprocate by lending our own games out to her.
It struck me though that if these were, for example, Microsoft games, we couldn’t do this exchange legally. Their license prohibits it. Once installed on a computer that’s IT. If we stop using that program we cannot transfer it on. This has been the case for so long that I’ve become completely used to it and usually don’t give it a second thought, but when I do, I can’t help feeling it is a beginning of the lock-IN of the good guys, not the lock-OUT of the bad.
The second is an incident that is hitting the computer press rounds at the moment. Sony placed a copy-protection mechanism on some of their music CDs which installed a rootkit on MS-Windows machines and compromised the security of these computers. Not only that, but it appears that Sony themselves may have pirated some of the software that they incorporated into it (Groklaw is covering this too). This is an amazing piece of tom-foolery from such a corporation.
There is an enormous misconception floating around that suggests free software is incompatable with DRM. I believe the opposite is true—it is essential to it. Open encryption technology standards are responsible for securing millions of dollars worth of credit card transactions each day, a significantly large proportion of those use free software. It has been proven that obscure proprietary routines don’t enhance encryption, they in fact decrease it’s effectiveness by making it more difficult to identify weaknesses before the bad guys do.
An important thing to remember about software only DRM technology is that it doesn’t work. It may prevent a computer-illiterate teenager from making a copy of the CD the first time they try, but even they could find the appropriate work-around in one of the ever increasing corners of the net to achieve their goal. Also it does nothing to prevent the professionals—the people in the basements in the far east—who make significant money from piracy. Any effective DRM would require a chip of some sort that just cannot be duplicated cheaply enough to make it worthwhile. With that in mind there’s no reason why free software is just as effective as its proprietary cousin in making use of it.
It’s worth noting there’s nothing any manufacturer can do to stop someone playing a CD and then using a microphone to re-record it. In fact, they need not be that primitive. All they need to do is to take the input to the speakers, or the amp, and re-digitalize it. Also, people are usually happy to pay the right price for the right product. By far the best antidote to IP theft is to follow a good customer policy and not overcharge for products. In fact, employing restrictive technology that annoys your customers is likely to encourage piracy, not prevent it.
You may ask: “”"Doesn’t this make DRM totally redundant in this area anyway?"“”. Many think so. However, it does make it more difficult for organised crime to make exact duplicates. There would be the same incentives to purchase genuine CDs and DVDs as there is for the old video tapes.
But going back to the Sony incident: it’s difficult to believe that their product would have been any less secure if they used free software. Remember, although they’d need to provide the source code for it, they’d have been under no obligation to provide the keys they’d incorporated into it. So, in effect, it would have been as secure as any proprietary alternative (which is not really secure anyway without DRM hardware). Also—and more to the point—they couldn’t have been accused of compromising their customers’ computers.
As for the allegation that they pirated software to build their anti-pirate routines—I’ll leave comments about that to others far more "expressive" than I.