By Brad King, Assistant Professor, Ball State University
Within the last year, large and small newspaper organizations have moved previously free content behind subscription walls that require readers to pay for access. The new model is fraught with peril, mostly notably the drop in online circulation as content becomes inaccessible through traditional search.
More concerning, though, may be the Associated Press’ decision to create a News Registry, which is a fancy name for a digital rights management (DRM) wrapper around its stories, which would allow content publishers the ability to determine how, when and where those stories — or parts of those stories — are replicated across the Web.
Which seems like a noble cause.
There is just one problem: DRM wrappers have, by and large, failed in the digital age because they create an “ease-of-use” problem for consumers. In order to work, DRM restricts different activities. It may, for example, prevent you from playing a CD on certain types of computers. Which is fine if you are technologically savvy enough to figure out which devices. Most people aren’t.
And nothing upsets consumers more than buying a product only to find out that it doesn’t work.
Worse yet, those restrictions meant to stop piracy are quite bad at doing just that, but very good at turning people willing to pay for content into pirates who traffic in the “underground” economy.
The decision to lock down content, which is almost surely bound to fail, then puts the content creators in the unenviable position that AP CEO Dean Singleton (the most vocal, but certainly not the only prominent figure to suggest this tact) has suggested: aggressive litigation — in the same vein as the recording and movie industries — to protect the new business model.
In the early days of file-sharing — the late nineties and early aught, the music and movie industries rushed to lock down their content with restrictive-DRM technologies. There were two results: people stripped the DRM from their CDs and DVDs and the technologies didn’t easily work between devices, forcing the content industry to scale back its efforts to create a “consumer-friendly” restrictive environment.
There was a moment when it appeared that a compromise might happen.
The resulting outrage over DRM forced the entertainment industries to take a different tact: create “squishy” DRM, which simply means an interoperable wrapper that works with every piece of technology: all the browsers, e-Readers, mobile devices and any other device that was meant to play digital media files.
Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee tried to help, spending several months in 2002 holding hearings on how the government might help create an environment that would protect consumers and companies within a framework that didn’t include DRM.
Eventually, the “squishy” DRM solution faded. Instead the content industries pushed to expand the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which among other items included a provision that made it illegal to strip away DRM protections from any digital content. Along with that protection, a slew of cottage industries sprang up to attempt to track activities online, in much the same way that the AP suggests its News Registry will work.
That decision essentially turned most digital consumers into thieves without slowing down the file-trading networks. And ten years in, the recording industry still hasn’t found an answer that works better than the MP3, a DRM-free music file that is near ubiquitous in its reach.
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Instead of developing business models that take advantage of the powerful networked environment, the entertainment companies have instead pushed further into restrictive legislation and punitive actions to stop piracy. The net result of that was explained by Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessig, who delivered a 20-minute, laser-focused talk about the laws that were choking creativity in a digital age at the 2007 Technology, Education and Design (TED) Conference
The talk neatly — and elegantly — pares down the arguments he’s developed throughout the last decade: in a digital culture, prohibition doesn’t work because the technology has already become so mainstream that the laws will have the effect of training the next generation to become pirates, while also having the larger culture effect of slowly eliminating the public commons.
Lessig, though, isn’t some half-cocked technologist who is pushing for the end of capitalism. He’s a soft-spoken, moderate legal scholar. His talk was a lesson learned from architecting the Creative Commons, an alternative to the Draconian copyright laws that have created lengthy and unreasonable prohibitions on culture, writing books such as Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, The Future of Ideas and Free Culture, and continuing to try cases, including his unsuccessful challenge to copyright extension act in Eldred v. Ashcroft, which he lost by a 7-2 vote by the U.S. Supreme Court.
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This isn’t to suggest that the AP’s News Registry — or other forms of controlled content distribution — can’t, or won’t work. There are models that have proven effective, although many of them have tied together software, hardware and distribution into one chain.
Apple’s iTunes/iPod, for example. Or Amazon’s Kindle.
But the real issue with DRM technologies, as hard core as DVD CSS encryption or as light as watermarking technology that tracks use, is that it casts a dark shadow across the consumer landscape, essentially squelching any community that may have formed around the content. You can’t grow an interactive community when you begin your relationship with a hammer.
Brad King is an assistant professor of Journalism and an Emerging Media Fellow at Ball State University. He is also on the advisory boards for South by Southwest Interactive and Carnegie Mellon’s ETC Press.