DRM Is A Folding Chair [9:56 pm]
(During my afternoon run (thanks for asking, it was awful <G>), I found myself going over Ernest’s "what is DRM for?" question, and I came up with a working metaphor that helps to explain further what I meant in my last posting on the subject.)
DRM is a folding chair — specifically, it’s one of those folding chairs that people use after shoveling out the snow from a parking space that they use to claim it after they drive away.
For those of you who don’t have to cope with snow, I know that sounds incredible (it was to me when I moved here from South Carolina), but this is a real problem in cities with limited parking and poor snow removal. People who shovel out their cars will have a ratty old folding chair or an old street cone or, if they’re feeling really aggressive, an old kid’s toy that they will plant squarely in the middle of the shoveled-out parking space. This object "marks" the spot, and everyone knows what it means — this is my spot: park here and you will suffer the consequences.
So, you keep driving around until you find a place that hasn’t been claimed or, in the worst case, you get out of your car, move the object, and hope that you won’t come back to find that your car has been keyed — or worse. After years and years of accepting this as a part of city living, Boston’s mayor got fed up with this whole thing [pdf] this past winter and ordered city garbage collectors to collect and dispose of all such parking space markers as a part of the regular garbage collection. (They gave people who used kid’s toys a 24 hour notice, but they tossed everything else in the trash) [an online gallery; updated URL]
Now, I see that this feature of city living is interestingly parallel to the issues of DRM, particularly as it relates to Ernest’s question:
First, consider the parking spot itself. It is a common good, created, maintained and regulated by the municipality and paid for with the tax dollars of the citizenry. A resident who puts a certain amount of work into this common good (i.e., shoveling out the snow) believes that it now "belongs" to her/him.
The parallels to IP should be clear here. The artist, building upon the cultural heritage of the past, puts work into something that she/he then asserts ownership over. And, in both cases, I think that we all agree that there’s something to the argument, although we might disagree with how much.
Next, consider the instrument of that claim. The parking spot is claimed/marked with a marginally valuable/useful object. Some of these chairs are real jokes. Moreover, if we consider the purpose to which it is being set, it is tragically inadequate to the task. A 100 pound boulder might actually be a deterrent, but a chair is no real impediment to the use of the space. It does, however, introduce something of a burden to the driver. She/he has to get out of the car to move the chair — irritating, but no real limit to someone who’s even slightly determined.
Again, the parallels to DRM are clear. Everthing that we know about DRM schemes today says that they cannot be a real impediment to copying. They’ll slow most people down, but they cannot stand for any real time. Moreover, like the crummy chair, DRM techniques are not worth investing major amounts of time and money in developing, since they really don’t work anyway.
When we get to primary enforcement, we see the key difference between the folding chair and DRM. The folding chair is formally backed up solely by vigilante justice that is purely illegal. The violator of the folding chair leaves a valuable asset in a vulnerable state, and the threat of damage to that asset is a powerful deterrent. Yes, you might be able to file a complaint, but you really aren’t going to get much out of it — particularly if you live in the neighborhood!
DRM is backed by the state (via the DMCA), and grounded in another underlying legal construct, copyright. The state supports the notion that there are rights to be defended, even though achieving that defense is sometimes difficult and, so far, anyway, is largely left in the hands of the copyright owner. On the other hand, that does offer up the interesting notion that filesharing lawsuits are the equivalent of keying a parked car <G>
Here’s the real point — the folding chair really draws its effectiveness from the cultural norms that have built up around it. An experienced Cambridge driver knows not to mess with a parking space that has a folding chair in it, even though she/he has never experienced the consequences that I describe above. Speaking personally, I can’t name a single person who has actually had this problem, but every Cambridge resident collectively knows that it would happen — even though a folding chair is, practically speaking, a completely ineffective limit on the use of a parking space.
But the folding chair works: not because of what it does, but because of what its presence means.
To me, the same is true for DRM. It’s not necessarily supposed to work. But it is supposed to tell us that, if we mess with it, we’re doing something wrong, and something bad might happen. The more that DRM gets used, and accepted, as an appropriate thing to include in products, the more inured we become to the notion that the thing it protects is property to be owned. And, by accepting it, we’ll become less able to frame, much less pose, the question of whether the thing it’s defending even should be owned — and if so, by whom?
I like this metaphor — it probably has a lot of other uses that I haven’t thought through yet. For example, we can expand it to think about copyright terms. We all agree that you probably should be able to keep your parking space for a little while — after all, you did supply a public good by shoveling out a parking space (even though you did so to be able to drive your car). On the other hand, we probably also agree that there should be a time limit on that ownership. It’s unlikely that there is a consensus about exactly how long that time limit should be but, for example, I’m sure we all would agree that it should end when the snow has melted, and probably a lot sooner than that.
That’s all I’ve got for now, but I’m sticking with this metaphor for the moment, if only because it appeals to the latent Dadaist in me — DRM is a folding chair.