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EFF on DRM and Development
Jamais Cascio, 16 Mar 05

eff.jpgThe Electronic Frontier Foundation has published a detailed and devastating argument against the use of DRM -- "digital rights management" -- technologies, with a section on problems for the developing world. DRM is used to limit how end-users can make use of digital files, whether music, movies or other media. DRM is meant to "protect" the files from improper use, as defined by the owners (which may or may not be the creators) of the original work in question. While there's no question that artists should be compensated for their work, DRM has numerous failings, both as a technology and as a social institution.

The document, Digital Rights Management: A failure in the developed world, a danger to the developing world, is available both as HTML and as a PDF. The argument it makes in opposition to DRM in the developing world is straightforward:

DRM enshrines assumptions about the legitimate activities of its users in technology. This means that DRM allows rightsholders to enforce exclusive rights in excess of those granted by local copyright.More subtle and dangerous is the way that DRM imposes rich-country values on poor nations. Most DRM systems are now being built on an assumption of ubiquitous Internet access. In addition, many DRM vendors have developed technologies that rely on a "return path" — that is, a network connection that DRM-restricted media can use to verify that it is allowed to play,or to charge per viewing. This is well and good in countries that have reliable electricity and telecoms, but it is unworkable in nations where these are in scarce supply.Some DRM systems contain the notion of a "household" or "family" and attempt to limit the playback of media to the members of a single household. These systems contain upper limits on the size of "families," on the number of physical locations that can be considered part of a single "household" — even on the number of times that a device can join or leave a single household, in effect, a technological limit on child custody arrangements, work-abroad programs and divorce and marriage.

In addition, limitations on local performers, restrictions on resale, problems with region coding and the undermining of distance education all make DRM an especially bad idea for the developing world. Not widely recognized is the threat DRM poses to the continued expansion of Free/Open Source Software (FOSS), already in growing use in the developing world. As the EFF document notes,

But FOSS is incompatible with DRM. FOSS is software that comes with the tools and permissions necessary for its users to understand its workings and improve upon it. For FOSS to work, every user must have the right to examine FOSS programs.DRM, however, requires that users be locked out of their devices. Every DRM licensing arrangement contains a disingenuously named "robustness" clause that requires implementers to design their systems so that users can't "hack" them — that is, so that their users can't readily modify or even examine the software and devices they own.The upshot of this is that there has never been a DRM technology licensed for use in a FOSS implementation.

Intellectual property rights in the developing world often focus on big, important issues like pharmaceutical patents and AIDS drug distribution; whether the restrictions on iPods are ultimately bad for the local music industry seems minor in comparison. But the DRM concept is spreading beyond DVDs and digital music, and -- as the FOSS example shows -- has the potential to undercut the ability of developing world technologists to strike out on their own. It may seem minor now, but it has tremendous implications down the road -- and by the time they come to pass, it will be too late.

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