Friday, February 03, 2006

DRM threatens libraries and more

The BBC has a report about how libraries there are very wary about Digital Rights Management software (DRM). The most interesting part of the article to me is the part that discusses obsolescence and DRM.

"We have grave concerns about the potential use of DRMs by rightholders to override existing copyright exceptions," its statement said.

In the long term, the restrictions would not expire when a work went out of copyright, it said, and it may be impossible to trace the rights holders by that time.

"It is probable that no key would still exist to unlock the DRMs," Laca said. "For libraries this is serious.

"As custodians of human memory, a number would keep digital works in perpetuity and may need to be able to transfer them to other formats in order to preserve them and make the content fully accessible and usable once out of copyright."

As a former archivist, this is a grave concern. Actually, the concept came to my mind on a different, but related topic - that of rootkits. Rootkits don't expire when delivered on CDs (like the Sony debacle). Hence, they could infect and even crash future computers with different operating systems and hardware. It's pretty long odds, but it's a possibility.

Back in the 70s, the French space agency was faced with a huge archiving problem. They had a lot of data that they had been collecting since the 1960s. However, the data was collected and stored in a variety of formats. The data was still valuable from back then. In fact, they often had requests for access to the old data from scientists around the world. There was one problem though. Some of the machines required to access the data in the varying formats didn't exist any more or they broke easily and there was no way to acquire replacement parts or they had to make new ones in order to get at the data. Of course, once they got the data, they would then transpose it to an updated format. However, that format was going to be obsolete soon as well. So, what to do?

The agency gathered together dozens of people from a variety of fields. The plan that they came up with for a component based archiving system was terrific. In fact, it is still being used today. Basically, one can think of such an archiving system much like a stereo system. Each component has a specific task and can be swapped out when needed, either to replace a bad unit or to upgrade to a new system. They operate independently of each other. So, in the stereo analogy, if the CD player and amplifier are combined in one unit and the CD player goes dead, then your amp becomes worthless except for radio play. Vice versa is also true: if the Amp goes dead, then you have a worthless CD player.

In the archiving world, this meant that the storage medium (magnetic tape, spinning disk, or some other medium) was separated from the server that ran the database and retrieval system. If the server went dead or needed to be upgraded, then (assuming you didn't have a catastrophic failure or a lack of a back up system) it could be rebuilt from the tape library or spinning disk. If the medium went dead, then it could be rebuilt by the backup medium and the server. Similarly, if upgrades were needed (say a new tape format came out or a new OS was required), then the units could be swapped out while minimizing the impact. That's the theory at least. In the real world things are generally more difficult than that.

DRM thwarts this. As the BBC article points out, the DRM doesn't expire when the copyright does and even if it did, by that point it may be incompatible with the current hardware or OS. The consequences extend far beyond the public library. Say you bought a book that you loved, but the author never became a best seller. The book came on disk and it has DRM. Now, most people don't re-read every book that they own every year. So, you set the book down for, say, 5 or ten years and then remind yourself of it and want to go back to it. Only, the DRM is still in place and it's incompatible with current hardware or software configurations. You might think, "Well, damn. That sucks. I guess I'll just have to go out and buy a new one." Only you search online and the book, because like most books, it's not a bestseller and it's gone out of print. You go to the library. They have the same problem. DRM has just thwarted your right to the product you purchased and are using legally.

That's one problem with DRM and it's a large one. Why? Because publishers tend to want to DRM everything. They do so saying that they want to protect their rights as a publisher and the rights of the artist as well. But do they protect the rights of the artist? In fact, DRM may thwart the potential copyright and royalties of the artist.

Consider that in the world only an infinitesimal amount of what is published/created actually rises to the level of longevity that can take advantage of the maximum (or even half) of the copyright laws as they now stand. Some art is immediately accepted and hailed, like Arthur Miller's plays. Those items are bound to continue to appear in a variety of forms, reprinted for decades to come. Other artists don't become famous until decades after they are dead (as the famous saying goes). Writers like William Faulkner all but disappeared from the scene until a literary revival in Universities. Today, Faulkner's works are the subject of the Oprah Book Club and have become hits once again. Under DRM, this may never happen.

Because Faulkner's work was not a best seller in it's day, the publisher might choose not to re-print it. It may not update the work to the latest medium. Faulkner's relatives might wish to re-print it themselves, but that may provoke legal action from the original publisher. They also may not have the money to re-publish the work. So, unlike today's scenario where people can go back and rediscover his work and raise it to fame again, the work gets lost in a DRM scheme. Because it is lost, the family loses any royalties that it may have been paid over the years. DRM thwarts copyright laws and the protections that they provide to artists and their relatives.

Consider the people who rise to the top of the best seller lists. Those are the works that are most likely to be re-printed in updated formats (with or without DRM). Nothing against these authors, but Stephen King and John Grisham, while well loved, are not likely to be preserved as literature 100 or 200 years from now. While perhaps better deserving artists like Orhan Pamuk or Naguib Mahfouz would have their works lost under DRM for mediocre sales. Losing those works doesn't just cost the authors or the publishers, but it also costs the collective memory. It costs our history and our ability to research into our pasts and discover truths about ourselves.

Without access to older word, books like Shari Benstock's Women of the Left Bank could never have been written. Her book documents the movement of women writers in Paris during the early 20th century. Sure, she could still write about Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, Colette, and Anais Nin, but more obscure ones like Natalie Barney, Renee Vivien, and Janet Flanner would be completely lost. That would not only be a great loss to the families of these writers, but it would also be a great loss to our culture and heritage.

As we head into the new technologies, we need to hold these concerns in the highest regard. One of the great advances of humans has been our ability to preserve our history and communicate it to following generations. This has been accomplished by means of transcribing, print, mass publications, and more. DRM as it is currently conceived disturbs this system and in fact, could wreck it completely. Do we want future generations to judge us by just the John Grishams and Stephen Kings of the world? I don't think even those authors would be happy with that prospect.

Note: I'm not totally against protecting artist and publisher rights. I do think that copyright laws are way over extended and ridiculous. Still, I want to see people compensated for their work. DRM as it is currently designed does not do this properly. It also interferes with the Fair Use doctrine, but that's the subject of another post.

No comments: