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7/20/2006
03:43 PM
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Will You Join The DRM Dance?

Back in the bad old days of the 1970s, Sony came out with a wonderful machine called a Betamax video tape recorder. The idea was that consumers could tape their favorite programs off of their televisions and watch them at their leisure. No longer would people have to rush home in a panic in order to catch that week's episode of Star Trek--you could watch Johnny Carson at 9 a.m. and your favorite daytime soap at 1 a.m. if you wanted. But Universal City Studios didn't see it that way.

Back in the bad old days of the 1970s, Sony came out with a wonderful machine called a Betamax video tape recorder. The idea was that consumers could tape their favorite programs off of their televisions and watch them at their leisure. No longer would people have to rush home in a panic in order to catch that week's episode of Star Trek--you could watch Johnny Carson at 9 a.m. and your favorite daytime soap at 1 a.m. if you wanted.

But Universal City Studios didn't see it that way.Together with Walt Disney Productions, Universal took Sony to court, charging that the ability to copy shows and movies off of TV was copyright infringement. This led to the now well-known October 1979 legal decision stating that using VCRs to tape for personal entertainment, or time shifting, constituted fair use. VCR sales soared, and the technology became a given in most U.S. homes. And the movie studios? They coped--by creating a market for rental tapes that kept profits coming.

These days, entertainment companies are instituting the lawsuits and trying to stem the tide of digital downloads. One can hardly blame them for panicking--when you have thousands of potential buyers pulling music and videos off of the Internet for free, you can hardly call that fair use, even by the broadest interpretation of the term. If you want to listen to a copyrighted song or read a copyrighted novel or watch a copyrighted movie, you should pay for it.

However, I always assumed it was the entertainment companies' (and the legal system's) job to handle the problem--not my operating system's. This is why I was a bit bemused when my colleague Alexander Wolfe said in his well-written article "Top 10 Windows Vista Hits And Misses" that he considered the digital rights management feature in the current prerelease version of Vista to be one of the operating system's hits. Why? Because DRM as implemented in Vista doesn't interfere with the user experience.

This strikes me somewhat like giving kudos to a policy of handcuffing people who want to walk in the park so that they won't pick the flowers--because the handcuffs are now more comfortable.

Let me be clear here: I have no objections to entertainment services instituting methods to enforce the copyright of the tunes and video they peddle. If their products are good enough, people will use the services; if their methods of enforcement don't work, people will find other services. And I'm not naïve--since Microsoft owns the underlying DRM format, it's not terribly surprising that the company would incorporate it into its brand new operating system.

However, I'm still not convinced it's the role of my operating system to enforce copyrights on behalf of music and film companies. I keep having this nightmare in which my copy of Windows Media Player suddenly says to me, "You can't play this song--it hasn't been authorized."

"No, no," I scream, "you don't understand--I downloaded this in 1985! The recording dates back to 1923! It's not being sold anywhere anymore!"

"Sorry, dear. I've deleted the file, locked up the computer, and sent an e-mail to the RIAA. The police should be at the door any minute now..."

What do you think? Does Vista's implementation of DRM annoy you or thrill you, or is it simply one more Windows feature to be coped with? Let me know.

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