DRM or what?

You might have heard of Richard Stallman, if only from references in a well-known nerd webcomic as I did until lately. He has apparently been well known as passionated programmer from the old days, his efforts around GNU and his activities advocating free software. I found this talk of his by accident. It is from early 2009, so not new but still relevant. It is a great talk on many levels even if you do not agree with him on every statement. It is provocative and I guess deliberately so; it certainly got me thinking.

I agree on many points. DRM — nice wordplay of his here — is crap. When I was a kid, we borrowed books from friends, recorded music from radio on tapes and TV shows on VHS. This was perfectly legal as long as you did use the material only in private and not to make any profit. I had my first major cynical moment when, years ago, Sony and others pushed laws that prevented us from copying CDs and invented nasty copy protection that more often than not mad the disk not work but, at the the very same time, I found CD-Rs by Sony labelled as specifically suited for music. This perfectly represents the double morale at work there that cares only about profit. But then, this is what capitalism is about, right?

Stallman starts with a historical analysis, embedding the current situation in the development of copyright law over the last 2000 years. I find this analysis to the point; he clearly points out that the original aims of copyright are no longer achieved. The solutions he proposes make sense: give a copyright for up to ten years that ensures exclusive marketing rights but let sharing be legal. Especially sexy is his idea of a music player with a button that donates 1$ to the artist of the current song. Why has nobody implemented this yet?

His postulation of a big conspiracy is maybe a bit overstating. Sure, big companies form cartells to firm up their monopolies, that is a well known fact. But they do it openly, so you cannot call it a conspiracy. The fact that their behaviour is accepted by many is sad, tough. A friend of mine bought a proprietary DVD player software for her Linux PC, just to be safe.

Sony sells CD-R specifically for music on amazon

In general, Stallman argues on an ethical level, claiming that our personal freedem is eroded by DRM and copyright law. I cannot fully agree with that since I have not yet been forced to buy such products. If you reject any thusly protected good, though, you can not fully participate in our modern culture. This in itself is certainly a problem. I prefer, however, a more worldly approach: the argumentation of companies employing restrictive licenses or even DRM is just wrong. They claim that the number of (illegal) downloads times piece price equals their loss. This is not true, period. There is no telling that any downloader would have bought the piece. In fact, a number of people I now download music and buy the album afterwards if they like it. As Stallman points out, there are quite a number of examples were free sharing and donations got artists going. I seem to remember that the Arctic Monkeys took off that way. In any case, the flood of lawsuits demanding outrageous amounts of money from individuals has its very own negative impact on economy.

There is one part of Stallman’s talk where I strongly have to disagree, though. He demonizes publishers in general and basically advocates leaving them out entirely, focusing on the artist-customer relationship. This idea might look appealing from the ethical point of view but will never work. We need publishers, without them there can be no art or any product that lives up to the quality standards we have become used to. This might be less true for software and ebooks, but all the more so for printed books, musik and especially movies. Investments in editors, studios, remastering, case and CGI have to be covered and are expensive if executed by experts. Furthermore, think of translations and advertising in order to target the world market at all! Successful authors say that without publishers it would be very hard to be a full-time writer². Therefore publishers have their well-deserved place and they deserve to be paid for it appropriately.

In the end, we need laws and — more importantly — a public mindset that ensures that artists can live of their art if they are good and that publishers have a reason to invest in bringing the art to us. And, of course, that at the same time allow us to access art and other products of the mind (relatively) freely and without being criminalised. These are contradicting requirements, therefore we need a compromise. The current situation is clearly on the far side of freedom and might even though not take care of artists enough¹. Stallman, on the other hand, advocates something that is not compatible with capitalism at all. If we can meet in between, we will have achieved something good. But Stallman is right when he says that in order to overcome the power of rich companies we have to speak up loudly and claim our heartfelt rights in the same way as the companies stake their claims. In a functioning democracy politics take care of the compromise then. I hope.

1: Note that in Germany, copyright law works slightly differently than in the US and certainly for the better. The Urheberrecht can never be transferred from the artist to anybody else, so artists never lose control over their work.

2: Listen to this podcast.

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