Microsoft Research DRM talk
By Cory Doctorow
Public Domain Books
3. DRM systems are bad for biz
This is the worst of all the ideas embodied by DRM: that people who make record-players should be able to spec whose records you can listen to, and that people who make records should have a veto over the design of record-players.
We’ve never had this principle: in fact, we’ve always had just the reverse. Think about all the things that can be plugged into a parallel or serial interface, which were never envisioned by their inventors. Our strong economy and rapid innovation are byproducts of the ability of anyone to make anything that plugs into anything else: from the Flo-bee electric razor that snaps onto the end of your vacuum-hose to the octopus spilling out of your car’s dashboard lighter socket, standard interfaces that anyone can build for are what makes billionaires out of nerds.
The courts affirm this again and again. It used to be illegal to plug anything that didn’t come from AT&T into your phone-jack. They claimed that this was for the safety of the network, but really it was about propping up this little penny-ante racket that AT&T had in charging you a rental fee for your phone until you’d paid for it a thousand times over.
When that ban was struck down, it created the market for third-party phone equipment, from talking novelty phones to answering machines to cordless handsets to headsets – billions of dollars of economic activity that had been supressed by the closed interface. Note that AT&T was one of the big beneficiaries of this: they also got into the business of making phone-kit.
DRM is the software equivalent of these closed hardware interfaces. Robert Scoble is a Softie who has an excellent blog, where he wrote an essay about the best way to protect your investment in the digital music you buy. Should you buy Apple iTunes music, or Microsoft DRM music? Scoble argued that Microsoft’s music was a sounder investment, because Microsoft would have more downstream licensees for its proprietary format and therefore you’d have a richer ecosystem of devices to choose from when you were shopping for gizmos to play your virtual records on.
What a weird idea: that we should evaluate our record-purchases on the basis of which recording company will allow the greatest diversity of record-players to play its discs! That’s like telling someone to buy the Betamax instead of the Edison Kinetoscope because Thomas Edison is a crank about licensing his patents; all the while ignoring the world’s relentless march to the more open VHS format.
It’s a bad business. DVD is a format where the guy who makes the records gets to design the record players. Ask yourself: how much innovation has there been over the past decade of DVD players? They’ve gotten cheaper and smaller, but where are the weird and amazing new markets for DVD that were opened up by the VCR? There’s a company that’s manufacturing the world’s first HDD-based DVD jukebox, a thing that holds 30 movies, and they’re charging $30,000 for this thing. We’re talking about a $300 hard drive and a $300 PC – all that other cost is the cost of anticompetition.