DRM's Slow Death. Sorta

Mark Gibbs ponders the slow death spiral of digital rights management as the RIAA almost admits that DRM is obsolete, as Amazon violates its terms of service and apologizes, as lawyers attempt to redefine what it means to buy digital content, and how the Associated Press has just discovered DRM.

Digital Rights Management is "sorta" dead. Officially "sorta" dead. Well, officially "sorta" where the Recording Industry Association of America is concerned.

Earlier this month Jonathan Lamy, chief spokesperson for the RIAA, commented in an e-mail message to SC Magazine: "There is virtually no DRM on music anymore, at least on download services, including iTunes." In other words, the RIAA is sorta admitting that DRM is sorta dead.

Of course, that doesn't mean that DRM is even vaguely dead in other alternate universes such as the one inhabited by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), or, for that matter, the one inhabited by Amazon.

Amazon recently went staggeringly far over the edge of DRM. My colleague, Scott Bradner, discussed this fracas in his column last week, but let me summarize what happened: Amazon sold Kindle e-books of George Orwell's classics, 1984 and Animal Farm, but then found that it didn't have the rights to those editions. In a paroxysm of corporate idiocy Amazon told all of the Kindles that had copies to drop them in the bit bucket and then refunded the customers' money.

Amazon's CEO, Jeff Bezos, blogged by way of a mea culpa that the company's actions were "stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles." And for that matter, Jeff, out of line with Amazon's Kindle terms of service agreement, which grants customers the right to keep a "permanent copy of the applicable digital content."

But there was another consequence: Amazon's deletion of the e-books didn't just get rid of the book but also removed reader's annotations. According to the New York Times "Justin Gawronski, a 17-year-old from the Detroit area, was reading 1984 on his Kindle for a summer assignment and lost all his notes and annotations … 'They didn't just take a book back, they stole my work' he said." I wonder whether and how Bezos will make it up to Gawronski?

Apparently Amazon's bulk deletion of e-books has happened before; I have read that some time ago Harry Potter and Ayn Rand e-books were purged from Kindles for similar reasons and with equal, dare I say, Orwellian jackbootedness.

Out of this mess an interesting issue has emerged: You don't buy an e-book; you merely rent it and your rights are laughably limited. As reported on Boing-Boing, the lawyer who represents the MPAA and the RIAA, Steven Metalitz, wrote in a letter to the Copyright Office: "We reject the view that copyright owners and their licensees are required to provide consumers with perpetual access to creative works. No other product or service providers are held to such lofty standards. No one expects computers or other electronics devices to work properly in perpetuity, and there is no reason that any particular mode of distributing copyrighted works should be required to do so."

What a wonderful example of the ugliness and deviousness of the law when it is applied in the pursuit of corporate greed. Metalitz is happy to invoke the impermanence of things digital while ignoring the permanence of physical books.

As if all that weren't enough to bake your brain, now we have the Associated Press going with some weird DRM system to prevent Google and bloggers from misappropriating their precious content (check out this very amusing but Not Safe For Work blog posting on TechCrunch).

So, will DRM ever really die? It must do so eventually but not before corporate idiocy and greed have alienated and enraged customers. And there's no "sorta" about that.

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