Learning Lessons from International Day Against DRM

It’s been a month and a half since I’ve last written a post for 80 Percent of Success. As ever, I’ve been kept busy by the usual mix of enjoyable and less than enjoyable activities/obligations.

One of the things from this time that I’m most proud of is getting more active again in politics by volunteering for the Bournville Labour Party during the general election campaign. It is through this work that I came up with a new blog, Cats of the Campaign Trail, which I hope gave people some pleasure.

In amongst all the  election campaigning (and cat spotting), I also tried to take action in support of a rights issue I care passionately about.

On Wednesday 6 May, the day before the general election, I held an event at the Impact Hub Birmingham in Digbeth to mark International Day Against DRM. In the interests of honesty, it’s fair to say I wasn’t exactly overwhelmed by support from my fellow Brummies. But that doesn’t mean all was lost. I’d like to use the rest of this blog to share my thoughts on the day and how the campaign can be made effective.

What is International Day Against DRM?

Before I go any further, it’s only right that I should take the time to explain what International Day Against DRM actually is.

The day is described by its sponsor organisation, the Free Software Foundation, as  understood as a day of community activism  in support of users’ media rights. But what does that actually mean and what’s DRM, anyway?

DRM stands for Digital Rights Management. Wikipedia defines DRM as:

A class of copy protection technologies that are used by hardware and software manufacturers, publishers, copyright holders, and individuals with the intent to control the use of digital content and devices after sale.

Common examples of DRM in everyday life include:

  • E books you’ve purchased from Amazon which can only be read on Kindle readers or Amazon Kindle apps (the same applies to E books purchased from Google Play, iBooks, Nook, etc)
  •  Videos you’ve purchased from iTunes which you cannot play on your Android smartphone
  • DVDs you’ve purchased in the past but you can’t transfer to play on your smartphone or tablet.

On occasions when publishers/studios/retailers are prepared to even discuss DRM, it is presented as a necessary and balanced measure to prevent people doing naughty things like making copies of books/books/games and sharing them with their friends and family. Provided people stick to the rules, it is argued, you have nothing to worry about from DRM and you should instead get on with enjoying your life and and consuming media. International Day Against DRM aims to challenge this thinking and generate support for eliminating DRM.

The case against DRM (according to the Free Software Foundation)

The Free Software Foundation sets out its case against DRM on its campaign website, Defective by Design. It presents the case in three main ways.

  1. DRM is not effective at preventing copyright infringement. The evidence can be seen in the widespread availability of books/films/music/video games, etc via file sharing networks.
  2. DRM goes beyond copyright enforcement and restricts individual rights. Laws already exist to allow companies to take action on copyright infringement. DRM allows companies to go further, restricting how individuals use the media they have legitimately purchased by, for example, preventing media from playing on rivals’ devices.
  3.  Restrictions enabled by DRM drives monopolization and control. By restricting how media is accessed, companies are able to exert undue influence and control. For example, once a customer has purchased a several Kindle E books from Amazon, they are unlikely to switch allegiances  customer because the DRM measures prevent them from transferring their E book library to another service.

Simplifying and strengthening the message on Opposition to DRM

While all the points made on the Defective by Design campaign website are valid, I think more work is needed if we are to truly build a strong campaign movement to oppose DRM.

For starters, let’s flip the negative and oppositional language of Day Against DRM and rally people behind something positive.

In my day job as a Communications Manager, I regularly organise events to mark special occasions such as Human Rights Day, International Day of the Disabled Person and Road Safety Week. All these events address serious and weighty issues but still manage to lead with a positive message. Rather than focusing on the negatives of DRM, we should consider renaming Day Against DRM to something more positive like ‘Digital Freedom Day’.

Keeping with the positivity, the campaign messages should emphasise the positive benefits to individuals of a digital world free from DRM.

From road testing the arguments against DRM with friends and family who do not have a special interest in digital technology, I would say the messages around consumer choice and convenience resonated most strongly. In my experience, the average person is not all that interested in the ins and outs of copyright law and the philosophy behind open source computing. They are, however, bothered when they can’t get the videos they purchased on iTunes to work on their new Android smartphone. Looking ahead, the campaign somehow needs to make mainstream  consumers aware of the role DRM plays in these headaches if we are to succeed in getting companies to change their ways.

Lastly, and still related to the positivity angle, the campaign needs to be seen as separate and distinct from more radical and/or anti-authoritarian arguments against DRM. For example, the Defective by Design website currently raises concerns over corporate and governmental surveillance through DRM. While I am  concerned about these issues (and support the Open Rights Group’s work in opposing such measures), I believe they possibly distract from the more ‘sellable’ argument around customer choice and could even put people off supporting the day, for fear of being seen as too ‘out there’.

Next Steps for Day Against DRM

While my attempt at promoting International Day Against DRM in Birmingham did not meet with much success, I remain determined to keep on campaigning to overcome the restrictions and unfairness made possible by DRM. I hope my thoughts on the campaign and how it can be improved will encourage others to get involved in building a campaign that will engage mainstream citizens and enlist their support in helping us create a brighter digital future for everyone.

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