Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Is DRM Really CRAP?

Some time ago I emailed Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing and suggested an Internet movement to (pardon the marketing-speak) re-purpose the acronym DRM from its presently understood, copyright-monopolist definition of "Digital Rights Management" to the more appropriate, consumer-oriented "Defective Retail Merchandise." He referred me to David Berlind, an editor at ZDNet, who was working on just such a project. Berlind mentioned my idea in a blog entry but thought something catchier was needed. He ultimately chose the new acronym CRAP -- for "Content Restriction, Annulment, and Protection" -- which he explains in this video.

Flushing a Common Culture Down the Toilet?

Berlind's description of CRAP is fine as far as it goes, but it really only touches ever-so-slightly on the reason why the proliferation of DRM-laden media and devices DRM is killing musicis a problem. As I and others have written, this problem goes far beyond mere inconvenience and even consumer fraud. Proliferation of DRM and laws to enforce its use will lead eventually to what Lawrence Lessig calls a "permission culture" that stifles or even punishes non-approved forms of creativity. It's the sort of "culture" that would accept and allow, to take one ludicrous example, the Donald Trumps of the world to trademark certain uses of "You're fired," as if no one prior to the existence of his stupid TV show ever used those words.

I call this sort of behavior "corporate pissing" because it reminds me of the way dogs pee on existing objects to assert their territory. My feeling is that dogs can pee on whatever they want -- they are dogs after all -- but it still doesn't mean they own anything they piss on.

But DRM is an attempt to leave the pee stains of the alleged "owners" all over things that people have already paid money for in the quite reasonable belief that they thereby become the owners of what they have purchased.

What Is This CRAP?

I'm sympathetic to the concerns Berlind raises about sticking with the DRM acronym. But I don't think I like CRAP for a few reasons:

It's rather infantile. I know, that sounds rich coming from someone who just compared trademark claims to dogs urinating. But I worry that the silliness of the acronym belies the seriousness of that which it is attempting to describe.

It's easily mistaken for the actual word. Berlind writes, "People will want to know what you mean when you say 'No, really, the technology in there is CRAP.'" Will they, though? They can't see the caps in your voice. It seems more likely people will just think you mean it's, well, crap and leave it at that. (If you said "It's DRMed," however, might they not want to know what that meant?)

The words behind it are lacking. Content? What if you're speaking of a device with DRM technology embedded in it? Annulment? The first thing that comes to mind is "Catholic divorce" (not an accurate description of Catholic doctrine on annulments, but that's another blog entry). Will anyone relate that rather uncommon and legalistic-sounding word to the media or device they've purchased? Protection? I have a problem with the way this word is used in relation to these issues. This quote from Richard Stallman gets at why it bothers me: "Describing [DRM] as 'copyright protection' puts a favorable spin on a mechanism intended to deny the public the exercise of those rights which copyright law has not yet denied them."

Stuck with DRM for Now

When I worked in communications in the public policy world, I expressed frustration at sometimes having to use politically loaded terms that folks with an ideological axe to grind developed to describe the beliefs, trends, behaviors, groups, laws, etc. that they opposed (and sometimes, though not always, that we advocated). The reason was that sometimes the politically loaded term was already established in the public mind and to coin a new, alternative term would mean only confusing people. As my boss used to say, "They got there first."

I think it might be either too late or too early to try to replace DRM with another term. Too late because a lot of people are using "DRM" and will continue to do so. Too early because it's true most of those people are technoweenies with a specialized interest, vs. members of the general public. (However, I should note I'm familiar with the term and I'm not exactly a tech savvy dude. Heck, I don't even have an iPod.)

Once more and more DRMed products make their way into the market and Joe Consumer realizes he's been had when he "bought" that new song or media player or whatever, he'll want answers. That's when the technoweenies will need to be ready with a snappy, quick, easy-to-understand explanation that places the blame squarely where it belongs.

I don't know what the answer is for now. Berlind might be right in the long run. Or he might not. As with so many other things in life, only time will tell.