DRM Is Toxic To Culture

In pursuit of market control now, deployers of DRM are robbing us of our culture in perpetuity by enclosing the future commons.

Dry Stone Wall

Ancient dry stone enclosure wall in Cornwall, England

It’s possible that you think that unauthorised use of copyrighted music, films and books is such a serious problem that it’s worth giving away a little of your convenience and freedom in exchange for stopping it. If you do, I’d like to suggest you think again – and time is running out. 

Approaches to Enforcement

Travelling frequently in Europe, I’ve had the chance to use two approaches to the underground/metro/subway,  the Paris Metro and the U-bahn in various German cities. There is a very visible difference between the two, at least in my experience. Here are some sample encounters.

In Paris, I bought my Metro ticket and then used it in an automated barrier to reach the platform. I noticed lowlife furtively scanning the station and then vaulting the barriers, and I saw armed police at the station to catch the thieves doing this (they didn’t catch any that I saw, and there were several of each at each station).

By contrast, the U-Bahn in Nürnberg had no barriers. I bought my ticket, boarded the train without fuss, there was no risk of being shot by a policeman targeting a barrier-vaulting cheat, and the system was still clean, efficient and well-used.

The point of the story is there’s more than one way to enforce payment, and the same applies to copyrighted content; it doesn’t have to involve DRM and alternatives exist. The story sprang from a conversation long ago about DRM. A comment writer on my blog said of this technological disease:

I might be the only technologist on the other side of the DRM fence. To me it is like checking my lift ticket when I get on the ski lift. I might find that a bit annoying, but if ensures the resort can stay in business from collecting ticket money, then that is a net good thing for me. If the ski resort goes out of business I can’t go skiing, and I would resent those who got on the lift w/out paying.

I think there are quite a few people around who have a “fair enough” view like this one, which is unfortunately rather simplistic. DRM – the imposition of restrictions on usage of digital content by technical means, what I call Digital Restriction Measures – is far more than that.

It’s like checking the lift ticket, yes, but also the guy checks you are only wearing gear hired from the resort shop, skis with you down the slope and trips you if you try any manoeuvres that weren’t taught to you by the resort ski instructor; then as you go down the slope he pushes you away from the moguls because those are a premium feature and finally you get to run the gauntlet of armed security guards at the bottom of the slope checking for people who haven’t paid. The whole approach punishes the paying customer more than the occasional cheat.

DRM’s Collateral Damage

The problem with technology-enforced restrictions isn’t that they allow legitimate enforcement of rights; it’s the collateral damage they cause in the process. In my personal opinion the problems are (very concisely) that they:

  1. quantise and prejudge discretion,
  2. reduce “fair use” to “historic use”,
  3. empower a hierarchical agent to remain in the control loop, and
  4. condemn content to become inaccessible.

To go into more depth on those:

Technology-enforced restrictions quantise and prejudge discretion
People talk of “fair use” but what they actually mean is that we all depend on the exercise of judgement in every decision. Near the “bulls-eye” of copyright we’re all clear what is what, but as Lessig eloquently explains in his book “Free Culture”, in the outer circles we have to make case-by-case judgements about what usage is fair and what usage is abuse. When a technologist embodies their or their employer’s view of what’s fair into a technology-enforced restriction, any potential for the exercise of discretion is turned from a scale to a step and freedom is quantised.
Technology-enforced restrictions reduce “fair use” to “historic use”
The natural consequence of having the quantum outlook and business model of one person replace the spectrum of discretion is that scope for new interpretations of what’s fair usage in the future is removed. Future uses of the content involved are reduced to just historic uses the content had at the time it was locked up in the DRM wrapper (if that – for example, digital books are generally not able to be loaned to friends, and even when they are it’s treated as a limited privilege).The law may change, the outlook of society may mature but the freedom to use that content according to the new view will never emerge from the quantised state the wrapper imposes. The code becomes the law, as Lessig again explains in his book “Code”. As others have pointed out, “fair use” is forward-looking, “historic use” is ossifying.

Technology-enforced restrictions potentially empower a hierarchical agent to remain in the control loop
When use of content depends on a technology from a single vendor, as is currently universally the case, that vendor effectively becomes the gate to ongoing use rather than the actual copyright owner. What’s much worse, though, is that the restrictions don’t go away when the rights they are enforcing do. Copyright eventually runs out, but technology-enforced restrictions never do.

Whereas traditionally the act of copying that triggered copyright only applied to the production side of culture, in Free Culture Lessig explains that all digital consumption also involves making a copy. That means, unbidden and unreformed to make it suitable for doing so, copyright law has started to apply to consumers too. That terminological accident has given business the chance to turn the reading experience into a contractual matter, allowing the eternal imposition of restrictive terms where none are justified by traditional use.
Technology-enforced restrictions condemn content to become inaccessible
As DRM’s outspoken critic Cory Doctorow points out often, DRM condemns content to suffer the fate which for documents I once called “corporate Alzheimer’s”, where the loss of the tools to read or unlock documents renders the history for decisions unreadable and forgotten. Each of the problems above combine in a ‘perfect storm’ to create a content owner’s dream world of built-in obsolescence and repeated opportunity to sell the same content to the same people all over again if they actually like it enough to use it.
Meanwhile, our collective cultural memory gets locked up in instances which become inaccessible on the occurrence of the first one of:

  • The content being ‘turned off’ by a usage rule
  • The implementation of the restriction mechanism is obsoleted by an “upgrade” of the host system
  • The original medium degrades into uselessness but couldn’t be copied
  • A part of the “phone home for authorisation” chain goes out of business
  • The original license to use the copyright is no longer applicable (for example because your children have inherited the media but not the digital key, or simply because the agreement you have with the supplier is not transferrable)

Thus your children won’t get to play your music, show your favourite films, read your books, share your culture, with your grandchildren because they won’t inherit anything digital from you that’s usable. Historians won’t be able to track the influences on an event because the sources have digitally corroded. You’ll not even be able to share what you like with your friends.

Complacency leads to servitude

People with a strong belief in the power of the Invisible Hand to right all wrongs have been known to say things like: “If DRM isn’t good business it will go away. Simple as that. No need to worry.” (actual quote)

Except the prior market power of huge corporations is being used to project it into markets in a way that distorts market forces and conceals the lack of ethics and the erosion of the social contract behind rights law. What if it’s good business but bad humanity? What we’re seeing here is the 21st century equivalent of enclosure – indeed, the comment by More from “Utopia” rings eerily true:

… not contented with the old rents which their farms yielded, nor thinking it enough that they, living at their ease, do no good to the public, resolve to do it hurt instead of good. They stop the course of agriculture, destroying houses and towns, reserving only the churches, and enclose grounds that they may lodge their sheep in them.

It’s clearly right to “pay the labourer a wage” but is that enough excuse to also condemn culture into the memory hole and enforce an economy of constant repayment for the same stuff? Is there a solution?

If there is, it will surely involve a fundamental rethink of rights legislation – patents and copyrights – that goes back to the social contract on which both are based¹, giving limited and temporary one-time rights to the producer in exchange for the enrichment of society. We’ve forgotten that was the root of the whole system, and corporations now have the sort of entitlement culture they deride in individuals. DRM breaches the social contract of copyright and robs the future commons.

We may also need the invention of schemes that allow the technological equivalent of the Nürnberg U-Bahn for content – allowing fair-users to show their bona fides, leaving others to face investigation – and OpenDocument that guarantees future access to today’s documents. And we need to recognise the point at which schemes like iTunes that appear to use DRM fairly but finally funnel us away from circumventable almost-locks into real servitude and not give in to the intentional seduction.

But whatever the answer, we need it soon, because the approval of DRM in web technologies means we’re rushing headlong into a world that will be doomed to forget its culture and history – if it doesn’t keep paying the protection money.  The worst we can do is leave things to evolve without intervention from the technology community.  As a card on my wall reminds me, “the biggest enemy of freedom is a happy slave”.


  1. In the US Constitution you’ll find this social contract in section 8, clause 8. The beneficiaries of those monopolies have become addicted to them and now want to make the monopolies permanent without amending the Constitution (or equivalent elsewhere). Payment for creative work is still justified; requiring payment in no way necessitates junking the constitutional limitation on the monopoly of rights. But the sole focus of the technology industry so far has been to do just that, at the behest of customers who want to make temporary monopolies permanent.
  2. This article for Day Against DRM 2017 is based on one I wrote in January 2006 in a place no-one remembers now. It’s depressing that it’s still so relevant.
  3. Thanks to my Patreon patrons for making publication possible.

18 thoughts on “DRM Is Toxic To Culture

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  4. The difference between music and trains is that the government paid for people to build the train, through taxation. If people started cheating the trains even more than they do, it wouldn’t stop the government from building more trains. The government isn’t going out of business.

    In contrast, as a musician, if people cheat me out of payment for my work, I have no recourse. I can’t just raise prices and force everyone, by threat of prison, to pay it. I’ll go out of business, and have to get a job doing something else (perhaps building trains).

    If you first find a way to pay all artists a living wage, then I will agree that DRM is unnecessary. That would be a great world. My issue is you’re pointing out a symptom (DRM) of the problem (how artists gonna pay the rent?), and not suggesting a solution. All the musicians I know today make more money off merchandise (t-shirts and mugs) than music, which is not just silly, but an indictment of how little money there is to be made making music. Worse, it’s unsustainable.

    I think you understand this, at least in part, because you have a Patreon link, which features “patron-only articles”, i.e., you’re using DRM yourself.


    • You’re missing the point here. I’ve no problem with creators monetising their work. But DRM is used to take away the rights of paying customers to enjoy what they have paid for in a manner of their own choosing. Patreon is not DRM; anyone can take my work posted there and pass it on to others.

      Moreover, your right to leverage copyright to monetise your work is limited; it is a social contract where society gives you a time-limited monopoly in order to encourage you to create and enrich the commons, a quid pro quo. DRM lets creators avoid their responsibilities under that social contract.


    • So maybe you should try to make good music and not only bad one since you earn money only on selling mugs?


  5. That’s the usual conflation of “charging for or otherwise controlling access” with controlling what one can do with a work after getting access to it (DRM). Copyright industry doesn’t want people to realize the difference.


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  10. Hence, apparently this makes pirates this generation’s digital archivists… Sigh. It’s quite sad to see that a lot of media will have survived only because of “illegal” copying.

    Just a note: per Polish copyright law, copying is actually permitted if the copies are meant for family or close friends. IMHO that’s much fairer that the approach USA or UK takes, that “no copies are allowed as long as the work is within its almost perpetual copyright time, period”.

    Maybe a tiered reform to public domain laws would be the solution. Firstly, different copyright periods for different media types – 15 years max for software and games, maybe up to 20 for movies and TV media, etc – pick a period which actually matches the public perception of when something should be entering the abandonware grey area. Secondly, don’t have an on-off switch for copyright protection – introduce an intermediate Creative Commons Share-Alike (perhaps Non Commercial too) -style period after say 10 years after first release, lasting until finally the work becomes fully public domain.


    • The problem with DRM is that, even though you may have a right to make copies, the act of circumventing the DRM in order to exercise your rights is itself illegal and the fact you have a legal right to the content you are unlocking is no defence. So it’s not just the copyright law itself that needs reform; there also need to be defences permitted in the DMCA and its other equivalents around the world to permit breaking the padlock to get at contents you’re entitled to.


  11. The author says: “it doesn’t have to involve DRM and alternatives exist.” The link says that the drop in the piracy rate in Netherlands is mostly due to services like Spotify and Netflix. These two services are both full of DRM. In fact, services like these would probably not be very profitable without DRM. It would always be possible to get a subscription for one month, buy a large hard disk and make a personal copy of all the content in service you might want to enjoy in the foreseeable future.

    I agree that DRM is bad. I would, however, go one step further and say that it is very much in line with the business model of selling copies of a digital piece of information (distribution services like Netflix are also in this category, their pricing model is just different than with traditional sales).

    In the end, it is the whole idea of limiting who can make copies of what that is at fault. Enforceable copyright is simply not compatible with either freedom of the people or the technical way in which computers work. The end game is either full freedom of information (which does include free private copying of as many movies or scientific articles as you want from whatever source you prefer) or a totalitarian world where all our actions are either tracked or controlled by technical or legal means. Pretending that there is some middle ground is just playing time.


    • I pasted the wrong link in there, I apologise. I don’t think DRM is especially important to their business in a practical sense though; very few people would do as you describe, and even then they would not impact the business especially unless they tried to distribute the movies, which would be illegal. If you make it easy for people to abide by the law, they tend to do so.


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