Have We Given Up The Fight For Our Digital Rights?

As Australians shift away from physical media and the concept of "owning" content, there's less need to do battle with digital rights management (DRM). DRM and anti-copying techniques have historically treated every paying customer as a criminal. It's a history of large corporations flexing their muscles in an effort to dictate user behaviour, even if it typically ends up failing.

Changes in content delivery have reduced the need for Australians to take up arms against Digital Rights Management. Photo: HBO/Foxtel

Look back at rights management efforts over the last few decades – whether it be music, video, books, games or other software – and it's clear that it doesn't take long for people to defeat it.

I'm certainly not out to defend DRM, in the end it generally does more to frustrate people doing the right thing than to hamper people doing the wrong thing. It's tempting to oppose all DRM on principle, but realistically a balance must be struck if content providers are expected to sink the resources into producing great content.

Strike A Balance

History also shows us that consumers are prepared to tolerate DRM as long as it's not too intrusive and they feel like they're getting a fair deal.

With the rise of digital music in the 1990s, Sony and Microsoft's love of aggressive and intrusive DRM saw them miss the opportunity to build the Walkman of the digital age. Instead that crown was stolen by Apple.

While Apple's iPod wasn't the first digital music player, it was the one to win mainstream success and drive the music download market to eventually surpass the sales of physical discs. Apple still applied DRM, using the FairPlay system, but the iTunes ecosystem was more user-friendly than Sony and Microsoft's clunky efforts and it saw Apple quickly dominate the digital music market.

The iTunes ecosystem is far from perfect, it may have abandoned DRM on music downloads but it still applies it to other content. Despite this it continues to succeed because Apple has made an effort to strike a rough balance between the rights of the consumer and the content owner.

Time To Stream

Now we have subscription services like Netflix and Spotify which have taken even more of the hassle out of DRM because we don't expect to "own" the content and we don't need to format-shift it. Rights management is still there but we bump up against it less often because these services make it easy to consume what we want, where and when we want and on our device of choice.

As a result the whole idea of rights management is a relatively foreign concept to a new generation of consumers who are no longer attached to physical media. Instead they rely on subscription content and software services along with cloud services. DRM is still there, but it's behind the scenes rather than in your face. There are exceptions, the games industry still offers plenty of rights management horror stories, but overall things seem to be improving.

Rather than worrying about digital rights management, these days people are more interested in bypassing geo-blocking because it has more of an impact on how they consume content. Of course you still have the same old DRM tricks turning up in new places, like 3D printers and coffee makers which using DRM to force you to buy their consumables – sparking a new wave of hacking efforts.

The best way to tackle piracy and enforce rights management is to offer customers a fair and easy-to-use service at a reasonable price. People could steal every song they buy on iTunes, every movie they watch on on Netflix and every book they read on their Kindle. Instead they hand over their money because they feel like they're getting a fair deal from these ecosystems.

Early Adopters Still Get Burned

Rather than worrying about defeating the encryption on Ultra HD Blu-ray discs, these days you're more likely to run into trouble with the HDCP encryption applied to most Ultra HD content.

HDCP is basically an encrypted handshake between the playback device and the display to ensure there's nothing in the middle copying the signal. Should this handshake fail, the content refuses to play in hi-res.

Each new version of HDCP brings with it backwards compatibility issues. Ultra HD Blu-ray discs employ the new HDCP 2.2 standard even though not every early Ultra HD television and monitor supports it, so some honest earlier adopters will feel the pain when they go out to buy an Ultra HD Blu-ray player.

These kinds of restrictive technologies will continue to cause headaches for some people, especially as old formats are abandoned and new standards leave honest people in the lurch. Unfortunately these people are considered collateral damage in the war on piracy, but that's not good enough.

The fight against oppressive DRM and anti-copying measures will continue as long as some customers don't feel that they're getting a fair deal. How do they impact on the way you consume content?

This article originally appeared in Digital Life, The Sydney Morning Herald's home for everything technology. Follow Digital Life on Facebook and Twitter.

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