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Aaron N. Tubbs

Dragon chaser.

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Somebody has probably said all of this before.

I’ve been upset with the way the music industry has responded to broadband and the Internet ever since the whole Napster thing came about.

Everybody has already moved on to the next article, since that’s nothing new. “You and every other hippie on the Internet!”

I’ve long been a proponent of the crazy-ass idea that free file sharing promotes more purchasing. Of course, I’m one of the few people I know that still buys physical CDs these days. I’m kind of weird. The scary thing is I still have the desire to head back to the world of vinyl at some point. Need to be a little more financially secure first, however.

But, after, what, half a decade now, I think I’ve finally figured out what bugs me about pervasive DRM and mechanical enforcement of intellectual property controls. Here’s an analogy:

I buy a car. The maximum speed limit I will ever see with it is 65 mph. Going above this speed will involve me breaking the law, unless I’m at a race track or some similar situation. What happens is that I’m given the ability to break the law, but it’s up to me to decide whether or not to do so. Should I decide to speed, I am breaking the law, and should a police officer notice that I am breaking the law, I should be punishable to the full extent of said law. Surprisingly, there is no black box in my car that says “you cannot go above 65 mph.”

Should devices be installed in cars that restrict their speed, there would be a huge market of folks eliminating said devices. Now they require inspections to ensure you haven’t violated this? Meh, I’ll say. Take a look at a tuner’s car. There’s often no way it could pass emissions inspections, yet they always somehow do. Chew on that for a bit.

There already are options for people that have cars suffering from speed restrictions in automobiles, like the German cars and their gentleman agreement that usually pegs their max speed at something like 155 mph, even if the car is capable of far more. Big millionaire X who just dumped a few hundred thousand on his new car is going to, first thing, buy a radar detector and a chip that defeats the nanny.

Back to the original problem. I buy some music from ITMS. I cannot re-download that music in the future should I lose my copy. I face all sorts of issues with player compatibility and media portability.

Of course, despite these and many other restrictions, I can still break the law. At the most trivial level, I can make an audio CD (or use the analog hole), and then re-rip into DRM-free audio, and do something illegal with it (never mind that employing this circumvention was probably illegal in the first place). More sophisticated ways of breaking the law come from people that figure out how to break the DRM itself. It always happens. There is always a way to get at the underlying data that is protected by DRM. Always. The only way around is to have complete control of hardware and software. Ask Microsoft how well that worked with the original Xbox. Oops. Yeak, strike that too.

A more insane example is that I buy a gun. I now have the ability to shoot somebody until they die. Buying a gun, however, does not mean I will actually shoot somebody. It’s against the law, and it’s a morally wrong thing to do. I’m not going to shoot somebody with a gun, but it was up to me to make that decision.

So, unlike breaking the law in a car or with a gun, it is harder to break the law with DRM-protected audio. It’s not impossible. In fact, with easy access to information on the Internet, I get the impression that it’s often easy. People who want to break the law still can, and DRM does not provide protection of the content, it provides a means of making unrestricted access to content somewhat more inconvenient. Guess who gets inconvenienced by this? Me. The guy that buys copyrighted works with money.

What all of these scenarios come down to, at the end of the day, is that it’s ultimately up to the consumer to decide whether or not to break the law. Mechanical restrictions make it more difficult to do so, but it’s not going to stop anybody.

So, what I want is for the ability to decide whether or not to break the law with protected media. The decision of whether to do so should be up to me. At the moment, this means that the only option I have for purchasing music is a CD: I can only legally get compressed media on the Internet, and it comes with hassles and restrictions to boot. A CD is the highest-resolution media I can buy and use in any way that I like.

I wish I could buy DVD-Audio and SACD discs, and get a higher-resolution source. I like high-end audio, and my ears are only getting worse as I grow up; I’d like to get the best experience while I still can. It is, however, illegal for me to take a high resolution digital signal out of the back of an SACD or DVD-Audio transport, and dump it into my high-end external DAC. I don’t want to get an analog signal out the back of an SACD/DVD-Audio player; I have a decoder that is capable of doing a better job making a musical performance of that bitstream than most players under several grand. It is, however, illegal to use it to listen to media that I can legally purchase in a store. Let me repeat them: it is illegal to listen to this media on my existing hardware. There is no rational explanation for my inability to listen to media I want to purchase on my existing hardware, but I cannot.

DRM doesn’t work in a way that supports the ethical user (hi, me again) who purchases copyrighted works. It works by hindering the unethical user, and slowing down (but never stopping) the unethical one. It puts the enforcement of laws in the hands of corporations at best. If you ask me, that’s kind of fucked up.