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The DRM Debate Is Dead and Both Sides Won

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As a music journalist for MTV who covered the rise and fall of Napster and was therefore witness to some of the music industry’s more ham-handed tactics -- still best personified by Metallica’s Lars Ulrich and best satirized by the animated clip “Napster Bad,” which come to think of it was one of the first viral videos -- I couldn’t help but sympathize with music fans who wanted easy access to their favorite tunes without forking over ridiculous amounts for bloated CDs.
In fact, RIAA played its hand so poorly, demonizing fans while at the same time perpetuating a system that too often robbed its artists blind, that I ended up being something of a copyright minimalist. I was never so naive as to think that music or any other art should be free for the taking, but when I saw firsthand the kinds of contracts that artists were all-to-often coerced into signing -- not to mention the ways in which absurd licensing requirements just about killed innovation in hip-hop -- well, let’s just say that my heart bled a little less for Sony than it might have otherwise.
Writing for Streaming Media for the past decade has made me no more sympathetic to the multinational conglomerates for whom video is nothing more than “product” (or, if they’re feeling especially charitable, “content”), but at least the movie and television industry has shown a desire not to repeat the music industry’s mistakes. It hasn’t always been successful -- do you actually know any one who’s ponied up $5 a pop to get digital copies of their DVDs via UltraViolet? -- but at least they’re paying lip service to the fact that consumers should be able to access content they’ve purchased on multiple devices.
HBO Go is a perfect example of a service built with both viewers and rightsholders in mind. If you pay for HBO through your cable provider, you can get access to all HBO original content on virtually any device you have, from tablet to game console to set-top box. Sure, it’s still a walled garden approach, and it’s frustrating for those of us who’ve cut cable. But since HBO is one of the few entertainment companies that actually built its brand by focusing on top-notch content, it’s hard to argue with its strategy.
Even more heartening, though, is that rightsholders across the board finally seem to have woken up to the fact that if they price their content right and make it relatively easy to rent or purchase, most people would rather pay than pirate. The obstacles to making content readily and cost-effectively available have rarely been technical ones; there’s no shortage of effective rights-management technologies available. Rather, they’ve been economic and philosophical, reflecting old-media thinking that was simply anachronistic in a new media world.
Those philosophical barriers weren’t only in the minds of the rightsholders, either. In March, Thorin Klosowski penned an excellent summary for Lifehacker called “Why I Stopped Pirating and Started Paying for Media” that outlined both the reasons why people pirated and the reasons why many have stopped. One of the key paradigm shifts he describes is that consumers no longer feel the compulsion to own the media they consume, giving rise to services such as Spotify, Netflix, and Amazon Prime. Consumers also better understand that while catalog titles might be available for next to nothing as part of streaming services, they’ll have to pay a premium if they want to watch (or sometimes listen) to blockbuster content on the day it’s released.
It’s not a perfect system -- for instance, you still need to be careful what device you use to purchase content in the iTunes store if you want to be sure you can view it on all your devices -- but for most of us, it’s better than what we ever imagined, thanks to relatively frictionless DRM, wisely applied.
This article appears in the April/May 2013 issue of Streaming Media magazine as "The DRM Debate Is Dead."

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