13 January 2009

Copyright is a Two-Way Deal

Just when I thought DRM might be dying a slow and satisfying death, it raises its odious head again, in the form of DECE, a consortium of hardware manufacturers, software providers and large film and music companies. DECE's aim is to set up a system of digital restrictions management which will allow sellers to control exactly how music, films, etc. are used.

The mainstream media seem to want to portray DECE as an attempt to fight back against Apple, but in reality, it is an attempt to fight back against the consumer. Market froces have created a situation where DRM-free MP3s are an increasing part of on-line music sales and Apple have announced that they will be removing DRM restrictions on the music they sell. It seems that consumers generally don't want to rent their content, they want to buy it. This is at odds with the media companies' desire to keep control over what the consumer does with content in order to protect their revenue stream.

It is often forgotten that copyright is a two way deal between the produced and the consumer. The theory is that the consumer temporarily gives up some of their freedom to use material, in the expectation that more material will be produced. The consumer retains certain freedoms, such as "fair dealing" rights, which would be too big a price to pay for extra production. Producers (or the companies that control producers) tend to misrepresent copyright as something purely for their benefit which entitles them to restrict the end user's freedom as they see fit, by using mechanisms such as DRM.

DRM violates the social contract that underlies copyright and should void it. In short, if producers use DRM, they should expect to lose copyright protection. If they aren't keeping to their side of the bargain, they haven't got any right to expect the consumer to stick to their side.

Unfortunately, governments tend to be too weak and corrupted to operate copyright as anything other than a one sided deal where the media lobbyists are given greater control and the consumer is given nothing in return. In that kind of environment, while copyright infringement may be legally wrong, it can't reasonably be viewed as morally wrong.

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