By Harry McCracken | Monday, October 13, 2008 at 3:25 am
Can I begin with a few disclaimers? I believe that people who create things deserve to be rewarded for their efforts. Which means that I think that stealing entertainment and software is wrong. Actually, come to think of it, if there was a form of copy protection that was never a hassle for paying customers but which effectively prevented piracy, I might enthusiastically support it. (Go ahead, mock me if you must–I’ll wait.)
With that out the way, I also believe this: Copy protection (also known in recent years as Digital Rights Management) just stinks. At its best, it creates minor but real inconveniences for the people who pay for stuff; at its worst, it badly screws up their experiences with the products they buy. Let’s just say it–the world would be better off without it.
Most of the best arguments against copy protection aren’t so much arguments as case studies. Over and over, it’s caused both anticipated and unanticipated problems. Including ones for the companies who use it.
So let’s review the case against copy protection by looking at what it’s done for us over the past 25 years or so. Warning: Persons whose blood boils easily should read no further…
I managed somehow to avoid Lenslok back in its heyday in the mid-1980s, but just reading about it makes me gnash my teeth, It was an oddball prism-based gadget invented in the mid 1980s to copy-protect games on the Atari 400/800, Commodore 64, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, and other pioneering home computers. You held the Lenslok up to your PC’s display to read a secret code that let you unlock a game. But “[in] order for the Lenslok to work correctly the displayed image has to be the correct size,” says Wikipedia. “This meant that before each use the software needed to be calibrated to take account of the size of the display. Users found this setup particularly annoying, at least in part due to the poor instructions that were initially shipped. Additionally, the device could not be calibrated at all for very large and very small televisions, and some games shipped with mismatched Lensloks that prevented the code from being correctly descrambled.” Sound a little bit like what Microsoft might have come up with if it had attempted to invent Windows Activation and Windows Genuine Advantage twenty years before it did. [Image from SUMO.]
Two of the most dominant software packages of the 1980s, they came from software publishers who apologetically championed the use of copy protection for years, even after the increasing use of hard drives made their schemes a major headache for customers who had paid hundreds of dollars for the software. Eventually, they were forced to ditch it, and in the long both were crushed by competitive applications that had never been locked up in the first place. Question for debate: Does copy protection tend to hurt the applications it “protects” in the long run–not only by annoying customers but also by leading companies to rest on their laurels rather than beat their brains out to earn every sale they make?
Microsoft’s brief Windows Genuine Advantage FAQ, for instance, begins its answer to the question “What is the Windows Genuine Advantage program?” by declaring “Microsoft Genuine Advantage programs, including Windows Genuine Advantage, help you determine whether or not your copy of Windows is genuine.” True–but far from the whole truth. If that was WGA’s principal purpose, Microsoft would give you one heads up that your software appeared to be illegitimate–at your request–and would leave it at that. Instead, it requires you to validate your copy of Windows (sometimes repeatedly) and, if it thinks it’s pirated, takes steps to dissuade you from using it. (At least Windows Vista SP1 removes the “kill switch” that rendered copies of Windows that failed the WGA test unusable.) I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’d respect WGA more if Microsoft simply said something along the lines of “We spent vast amounts of money to build Windows, and WGA exists to prevent people from stealing it.”
If you splurge on iTunes songs that are protected with Apple’s FairPlay DRM–which works almost exclusively with Apple products–it’s a major disincentive to buy digital music gear from other companies. If you plunk down money for tunes protected with Microsoft DRM, you can’t put them on an iPod unless you’re willing to burn them all to CD, then rerip them. Yes, Apple could license FairPlay to other companies and/or build an iPod that supported Microsoft’s flavor of copy protection. But when music isn’t locked up in the first place and uses standard formats like MP3 and AAC, you don’t have to worry about anyone supporting anyone else’s DRM–the music just plays.
That was the tagline for the music certification program Microsoft introduced in 2004, incorporating its Windows Media copy protection. The one that consumers had trouble with from the get-go. and the one that Microsoft began to abandon just two years later, when it shipped the first Zune players, which didn’t support Plays For Sure DRM. Today, many of Microsoft’s original Plays For Sure partners have dumped it, leaving consumers who invested in compatible devices twisting in the wind. And Microsoft says that Plays For Sure is now called Certified for Windows Vista. Except that its Zunes carry that certification and aren’t compatible with what used to be Plays For Sure DRM. Confused yet? I sure am.
In 2003, TurboTax added stress to tax time rather than reducing it, in the form of copy protection that Intuit said would be used on all future versions of the application. Its customers reported problems. Intuit initially responded by saying those folks were just misinformed and befuddled. Then it backpedaled, admitting that the copy protection was “the wrong thing to do” and ending it permanently. Oh, and the sales gains that the company thought would come once it was harder to pirate TurboTax? Intuit said that they were disappointing.
That’s not just the ultimate answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything–it’s also the number of digits that you’ll need to enter into Microsoft’s Activation Wizard if you’re unfortunate enough to have to activate one of the company’s products via telephone. Consider each digit a tiny hoop that you must jump through to prove you’re not a software thief.
Millions of perfectly good computer monitors can’t play high-resolution Blu-Ray movies–not because of a shortage of pixels, but because they were manufactured before the advent of HDCP, the copy-protection standard, licensed by Intel, that’s designed to protect high-def content. HDCP defends high-def video in part by making it look worse on non-HDCP devices: On older displays, it knocks down the resolution and turns high def into standard def. In other words, Hollywood doesn’t just want you to buy copy-protected entertainment: It expects you to spend hundreds of dollars on new equipment that supports its copy-protection scheme.
Wanna read more bad stuff ’bout DRM and related matters? Check out these sites–which are, for the most part, more ferocious on the subject than I am.
Major labels use DRM to punish Apple–and therefore Apple customers–for iTunes’ success. They do it by letting Apple competitors such as Amazon sell DRM-free music, but requiring Apple to use DRM on the same tracks, apparently in hopes of putting a dent in the iTunes Store’s music-download dominance. Besides Apple, who gets hurt here? The millions of music fans who prefer to buy their music from Apple, of course.