DRM considered harmful

I wrote this short paper for a philosophy of computing course here at OSU.

Digital rights management has been around for long enough that it is now ubiquitous. It is an umbrella term referring to a collection of methods for ensuring that media is used exclusively according to the wishes of the company that produced it. Since it is included with many software packages and media downloads, it has come to be accepted as a legitimate method of doing business. In this paper I argue that that is not the case and that DRM is bad for everyone involved. I first address this as a general principle, and then specifically from the standpoints of the consumer, of the business, and of the artist.

DRM is fundamentally an expression of distrust. In implementing DRM, a company shows that it does not trust its consumers to make acceptable decisions of how to use media. It artificially limits what can be done with a digital file; it forces the user to take certain actions. In this way it does not respect the agency of the consumer. Therefore, from a Kantian point of view, DRM is an unethical way of treating another human being. It further neglects the imperfect duty of beneficence. When a piece of media is copied, the original owner loses nothing by doing so, and the recipient of the copy gains whatever utility the media would provide. Since the original owner loses nothing (not even time; they do not need to be present to produce a copy), their duty of beneficence cannot be excepted in this case; by preventing copies being made, they deny other humans the value they could have provided at no cost. Thus DRM is unethical from a Kantian perspective.

A common rebuttal to the argument above is that when a copy is made the owner loses a sale. While this is true in some situations, there are other factors to consider. When a consumer chooses a pirate download over a legal method, they are generally choosing convenience (addressed in more detail later on). If a convenient legal method is available the consumer will pay if they are able. This can be seen in the success of services like Spotify, iTunes, and Steam. If a consumer is unable to pay they would not have purchased the media even if they were unable to pirate it. Further, the artist loses valuable exposure by limiting the audience of their work in this way.

It is generally believed that DRM promotes the creation of value by ensuring that artists and programmers get paid. It is true that this is the intended goal of DRM. However, in order for it to accomplish this, two things are required: one, that it works; and two, that when in place it does not decrease the value of the media. These two points are somewhat intertwined; often, if DRM is not properly implemented, it makes the media unusable. Not only does this hurt the sale of the media (reducing the artists' payout) but it also reduces the value of the brand. Take the most recent SimCity game as an example(Ian Steadman (Wired, 2013)). EA had implemented DRM by requiring a constant connection to their infrastructure. This infrastructure was inadequate, and as a result, the general opinion of SimCity 5 is very negative (Metacritic, User Score: 2.2/10; 3465 negative reviews; GameSpot, Average score: 4/10). EA is now one of the brands often lampooned in PC gaming forums (Reddit: /r/PCMasterRace). It is safe to say that they have lost sales to this badly implemented DRM. Even well implemented DRM is using system resources; a given program will run faster without DRM. This is especially true in the case of always-online DRM like the SimCity scheme - whatever lag is on the network is converted into in-game wait time. As a result of DRM, folks who pay for the media receive a hobbled, inferior version of the product; they are punished for doing the right thing.

DRM takes time and money to develop. It is a drain on the budget of the company which is hiring the artists and paying for the creation of value. Assuming that the DRM prevents losses in excess of its cost, it is working in the interests of the artists by incentivizing the creation of value. Since any digital file can be edited, all DRM can, in theory, be removed without affecting the file itself; the DRM-free version of the software can then be distributed. Thus all DRM is ineffective given enough time and effort to break it once. This means that developing DRM is a waste of time and money which could be used to pay the artists and to develop more content.

Lastly I would like to discuss the topic of abandonware. The term “abandonware” refers to software that was once commercial but since then either the company holding the rights to the software has disbanded or has discontinued support of the software. If the software was created with certain types of DRM (specifically, schemes that authenticate with the parent company in some way), any customer who has legally purchased the software is no longer able to use it. Note that there is no real reason for this; the software would still be usable if it were not hobbled in this way. This defrauds a consumer of what they rightfully own and is therefore tantamount to theft; this theft would not occur if the software did not include DRM. This issue is a more serious problem with products like SimCity 5 since the software must be constantly connected. If SimCity 5 servers are taken down (the company could easily decide that it is unprofitable), the game becomes completely unplayable. This can also occur with other types of media. There existed at least one service which provided “exploding” music files (which would become unplayable if they were not reauthenticated with the company every few weeks) (I refer here to the now-defunct SpiralFrog). These files suffer from the same issue.

In conclusion, DRM is bad for all parties concerned. DRM does not respect the humanity of the consumer. When implemented badly, it decreases the reputation and revenue of the company responsible. Even when implemented well, it decreases the utility of the software itself; even when done well it is still able to be subverted, which makes it a waste of time and money. Certain types of DRM will eventually make media unusable, either when the company goes under or does not support the product any more. DRM is bad for the business, the artist, and the consumer.