Propagating DRM in the web

Digital Rights Management (DRM) is not inherently wrong, but like most constraints imposed unilaterally by vendors on consumers, it only serves to harm the consumer.

Prior to electronic goods, services, and DRM, the rights and responsibilities in the purchase of products and services were more equitably divided, and with modern consumer law, the customer generally held the balance of power. When you purchase a book, audio CD, DVD video, etc., you exchange your money for a product which you can sell on, lend out, and remains in your control, albeit within the copyright licence which applies.

A fundamental flaw in the DRM schemes which have so far been implemented is that they overwhelmingly benefit the vendor, by removing consumer rights. An electronic product supplied under DRM cannot be sold on, or lended out, and at the whim of the vendor can be rendered unusable. Obtaining redress for neglect on the part of the vendor is very difficult, and there are no specific laws which provide the additional protection required to restore fair dealing to the consumer.

A good recent illustration of the shortcomings of a DRM system is Barnes & Noble’s conduct over the NOOK book reader in the UK. Deciding that its UK business was too small to bother with, it is shortly turning off all its NOOK services in the UK, and handing them over to Sainsbury’s. Consumers who have paid for NOOK books have no option but to transfer their libraries to Sainsbury’s, or they will lose access to them. There is no parallel in the provision of physical products or services, and there is no consumer law which prevents Barnes & Noble from effectively coercing its former customers to enter into a service contract with a different vendor.

It is therefore with a very heavy heart that we should respond to the news that the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has decided to incorporate support for DRM into its international web standards, in the form of Encrypted Media Extensions (EME).

Of course DRM is already used extensively over the internet by many vendors, including Apple and Amazon. However in officially endorsing this inequitable relationship, and providing support for DRM in future web standards, W3C will only perpetuate and deepen the disadvantage to consumers.

W3C had the chance to require better protection for the consumer, for example in schemes under which the vendor would have to periodically renew its right to limit access to protected material.

Under such a scheme, for instance, Barnes & Noble might have had the option to maintain their full support for NOOK books in the UK, or to release them from DRM protection altogether. That would have protected its customers much better, and forced the vendor to take their rights into account in their business decision.

Because these issues are cross-border and beyond the effective reach of any national legislation, fixing them would take the lead and determination of a truly international body to accomplish. Sadly W3C has shown that it lacks the moral independence to bring real improvement, and is happy just to amplify the inequity of the status quo.

I hope that W3C will soon set up a task force to address the growing problem of orphaned protected content. We are about to see a new phenomenon of millions of internet users losing access to content which they paid for in full, as vendors terminate services in the future, and their former customers become locked out because of EME.