Thursday, November 17, 2005
Punishing the good with the bad
Thus, it's with a fair degree of bewilderment that I've followed the recent developments surrounding Sony BMG's failed CD copy protection scheme. Please follow the link for details, but in a nutshell, the issue is that Sony started to put DRM (digital rights management) software on their new CDs, and that software turned out to mess up people's Windows PCs big time. (It has no effect on standalone CD players, Macs, or PCs that run Linux.) The software, intended to limit CD buyers to making a maximum of three copies, was so poorly designed that it provided a platform for at least one new Windows virus.
To be frank, I think Sony BMG's move was a big mistake in practically every way. On the other hand, I understand Sony's concerns about the rampant "sharing" of music, and can see why they'd like to come up with a way to stem the flow of illegally copied music. However, I am of the opinion that DRM is the exact wrong way to go about solving the problem. For one thing, DRM as implemented by Sony and other vendors has always caused the legitimate purchasers of CDs to suffer inconvenience and outright infringement of their rights as lawful customers. At least in the US, copyright law incorporates a concept called "fair use" that allows the person who buys a CD to make copies for his own personal use. (Fair use, as I understand it, does not allow one to make copies for friends, even for free.) Along with hindering the illegal distribution of digital media, Sony's implementation of DRM interferes with the fair use rights of legitimate purchasers. Thus, they end up hurting the very people they ought to encourage: the people who willingly pay money for their products!
Incidentally, DRM is not going to stop all forms of copying. Even if a DRM scheme could be perfected to the extent that it hinders making digital copies of the CD, there is no means that can prevent someone from hooking up an audio cable between their sound card output and the input of a PC or stereo device that is capable of capturing the music, albeit in analog form. (This method cannot be circumvented, to my knowledge, by any DRM scheme: the sound card output is the way the sound gets to the speakers or headphones, so without it there's no music to which to listen!) This method results in a degree of sonic degradation, naturally, but given that the very act of encoding a song into MP3 format degrades the sound quality to a degree, I suspect that most listeners would be willing to put up with the small amount of background noise or distortion that would be introduced by capturing CD tracks via an analog method. Mark my words: if Sony and company manage to hinder both legitimate purchasers and illegitimate copiers from making digital copies of their products, the bad guys will have no problem with switching to the analog approach for copying music from CDs.
Don't get me wrong. I think illegal file sharing is a violation of copyright law as well as a failure to respect the right of the musicians to be paid for their hard work. I have no sympathy for illegal file sharers. Nonetheless, I think the recording industry's response to them is wrong-headed at best. Instead of trying to persuade music lovers that illegal sharing is morally wrong, they are trying to hinder all types of copying, whether legal and illegal, thus incurring the risk of alienating many folks who presently do the right thing by paying for their music. In my opinion, this is exactly the wrong approach, one that Sony and its competitors will regret if they fail to come to their senses. If they were instead to treat their customers with respect, providing them with extra value in the legitimate product that cannot be had in a downloaded digital copy, and respecting their fair use rights, they might have a chance to restore their tattered reputation. If they don't wise up, I suspect that many folks whose consciences are not as sensitive as mine will give up on purchasing legitimate CDs entirely in favor of illegal file sharing. As for me, I might simply decide to be content with the many CDs I already own and no longer buy any more. Although I haven't been able to think of a good way to balance the rights of legal buyers with the abuse of illegal copiers, I am certain that it is counterproductive for a business to punish their good customers as Sony has just tried to do.