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It’s been a while since I discussed digital rights management (DRM) here, but technologies to restrict the use of digital content are still out there, and increase in both sophistication and popularity – among content providers, that is. DRM is anything but popular among the consumers of that content, and this isn’t because all consumers have a raging desire to illegally distribute their copyrighted music and movies. The problem is that DRM doesn’t just keep you from making illegal copies, in many cases it keeps you from making legitimate copies for your own use after you’ve paid for the content. That’s one of the primary complaints that has consumers up in arms.

And some of them are fighting mad about it. At last week’s WinHEC conference in Seattle, Bill Gates’ keynote speech was interrupted by protestors from a group called the Free Software Foundation, currently engaged in a campaign called “Defective by Design” that’s aimed at the way DRM technologies limit the usability of digital media (including not just software but songs, movies, electronic books, etc.).

Of course, a few months back Sony saw the wrath of consumers when it was revealed that some of their music CDs contained “rootkit” software that installed itself on users’ computers without permission as part of their copy protection technology. The company found itself the subject of several class action lawsuits that ended up in a settlement that required them to reimburse consumers and remove the rootkits. That hasn’t stopped content providers from developing new copy protection technologies, but perhaps it’s made them a bit more cautious as to how they go about it.

People have always shared their music, books, recorded movies, computer programs and such with friends. Ever since the advent of recordable media, they’ve made copies and swapped them with others. This dates all the way back to reel-to-reel tape recorders, but that technology was expensive and not many people had it, so record producers didn’t consider it much of an issue. When cassette recorders came along and making recordings got much cheaper and more widespread, there was some worry that people would record songs off the radio, for instance, instead of buying record albums. But the quality of the tapes was lower than the originals, so once again it never became a big problem.

Video recording equipment added a whole new layer to the issue. Movie studios were selling VHS and Betamax movie tapes for around $50 each (in 1970s money, at that) and saw a potential goldmine going down the drain if people were able to record their own copies. A court fight ensued, in which the big companies tried to have the video recorders banned completely, but consumer rights prevailed when justices ruled that the legitimate uses of the technology outweighed the risk of their being used to violate copyright. It was, after all, a little like trying to ban the selling of cars because they could be used by criminals for fast getaways from crime scenes.

Another saving grace was that, as with the cassette recordings of music, “home grown” video tapes that were second or third generation copies just weren’t as good as the originals, so folks still had an incentive to shell out for the commercial product.

Then digital recording came along. As home computers grew ubiquitous, any and everyone could make copies of digital music and other content with no discernible difference in quality from the original. They could burn them to CD or DVD easily and cheaply, and give them away to all their friends – but this still would have presented only a limited threat to the content providers except for one thing: the Internet.

With most computers in the world connected to a common network, computer users could not only share copies of their songs and movies with the limited number of people around them, they could also share them with hundreds or thousands of strangers all over the world. At first, uploading and downloading the large files involved was time consuming and required a certain amount of technical savvy since dialup Internet connections were slow and the content was often divided into many separate files that had to be decompressed and reassembled. But technology, as technology often does, got better.

High speed broadband and new file formats combined with file sharing software made it a “no brainer” for even pre-teens to quickly grab a large number of digital songs, movies, TV shows, etc. Now it seems that those who make and market digital media and the consumers of that media are caught in a vicious cycle. When they see a lot of people getting their content for free, content companies believe (rightly or wrongly) that they’re losing money. That causes them to develop the technologies to try to keep it from happening. Those technologies, though, anger the consumers who DO pay for the content because it keeps them from making copies for themselves. That leads more of those to feel justified in downloading content illegally. Which leads to more panic and reaction on the parts of the content companies, who also raise prices for those consumers who do pay, alienating them even more, and so forth.

The question is: how do we stop the cycle and come up with a solution that’s fair to everyone? Certainly software makers, artists and production companies deserve to be compensated for their products. But many consumers who want to do the right thing feel that they’re being taken advantage of when they pay higher and higher prices for more and more dysfunctional products.

Tell us what you think. Do protests like the one at WinHEC do any good? If consumers stop buying the products, will that send a message to the providers or will they just conclude the low sales mean more people are making illegal copies and cause them to raise prices higher and step up the copy protection technology? Do more laws help or hurt?

Deb Shinder