Thursday, January 04, 2007

RIAA Lost the War, Missed the Memo

I haven't felt very bloggy lately, because I've been terribly busy and not out and about around Peoria much this month. But one thing I have been thinking about is Digital Rights Management (DRM), which are the various systems movie and music (and sometimes publishing) companies use to restrict you from pirating their products ... which, in reality, means that they restrict you from actually USING products you own in perfectly legal ways. I cannot, for example, hook a DVD player up to my TV/VCR combo, because the DVD player reads that as "attempted piracy" by being hooked straight to a VCR system. I get all the anti-piracy lines on the DVD. When I upgraded to DVDs a few years back, I actually had to shell out for a new television. Some CDs won't play in CD players they think can record, which can include computers or even car stereos; ideas are bouncing around for CDs and DVDs that will only play in ONE player, the first one you play it in, so you could never take a movie to a friend's house or take your Grateful Dead CD to the basement workshop if you'd already played it in the living room.

So the problem with all of these DRM schemes is that a) they're ridiculously easy to crack -- if I wanted to pirate a DVD, I'd do it on my two-DVD-drive several-year-old Dell using free software off the internet, not on my 10-year-old TV/VCR combo -- and that b) they screw honest consumers, the vast majority of us, while pirate go right on pirating.

I have not actually ever pirated a DVD. It seems like way too much trouble. I know how it works in theory, but I know the law, generally respect it (I do find a monetary worth to movies that I'm willing to pay for), and don't really have any desire to bother. I have better things to do with my time. Most consumers (statistically) are like me, particularly with movies, not interesting in pirating things we've bought. Maybe ripping a copy so we can have one in the car and one in the house, but most of us aren't pirates and don't care to be. All we want to do is be able to buy a DVD or CD and have it work WHEREVER WE WANT TO PLAY IT and not have stupid copy-protection schemes that can install spyware or malware on our computers, prevent it from playing in various players, or prevent us from using it in entirely legal ways.

What the companies want to sell us, basically, is a license, not a song. Not a movie. But a license. Which is great for them, but while I'm willing to pay 99 cents for a song, I'm not paying 99 cents for a limited license to that song. And I'm not renting a single. I'm just not.

So these are all concerns of me and people older than me who are interested in DRM. But I've been thinking about the kids younger than me. Kids who know how to rip CDs when they're 10 and bypass iTunes restrictions when they're 12. Kids who have never lived in an era when albums weren't basically a single with a lot of crappy mass-produced filler after it. Kids who are frighteningly clever at remixes and shmups. Kids whose cleverness I watch on YouTube and bust a gut laughing at while SNL gets less and less funny.

So here's where the RIAA has gone wrong -- they're fighting a rearguard action against my generation in the hopes this will solve the problem. But kids today have never lived in a world without digital data, and while all information WANTS to be free, digital data is slipping around the bars of the cage like crazy.

The RIAA wants to live in the world of the last 50 years where we paid for music bundled by the album, resulting in some truly spectacular albums, but a lot of crappy, mass-produced filler from the RIAA popstar factory. A world where music companies were arbitors of taste, controlled what went to major outlets (stores, MTV, radio), and decided what we would listen to. The "underground" was harder to find, and often inaccessible to kids under 16 or 18 or 21 who couldn't get to or go in to the venues.

But that's not today's world. I've seen the future of music compared to a medieval or Renaissance era of music where court minstrals were supported by people who thought they were worthwhile entertainment rather than a corporate machine peddling stars. It's an interesting analogy. The truth about the music industry today is that, as I saw it decribed the other day, our nation's biggest music stars that the have the full promotional power of the record industry behind them are winners of a karaoke contest. (And honest to God, if I see one more overblown "Idol is back" commercial, I'm not watching this year just for spite.)

Kids are ridiculously savvy these days. They can still be manipulated by marketers, but only when they're willing to be manipulated. They see through adult attempts to be "hip," through lame prepacked corporatiana sold as something grassroots and deep and worthwhile. They listen to obscure bands from Finland on the internet.

They download singles.

I download singles, particularly older singles that I half-remember from my childhood or when I was in junior high and going to dorky dances. I snagged American Pie off iTunes -- I only have it on tape, not CD -- and was so re-enamored of Don McLean's musical gifts (and my ability to see his entire discography and listen to snippets right there in front of me) that I went on a Don McLean iTunes binge and I'm definitely snagging his albums on CD. MC Hammer? Not so much. If I like a Britney Spears single (yes, I like Britney Spears singles), I can snag THAT SINGLE and not the entire filler disc. Older singles, okay, it resurrects the market for older classic songs that otherwise wouldn't be bringing in any money, but new singles? How can they convince you that Britney Spears actually has a whole concert's worth of worthwhile music when you know and they know that there's only the one song on the album worth listening to, and that's all you buy?

The RIAA hates this.

But kids aren't going to buy crap anymore just because it's packaged with good stuff. They know how to surgically incise the data they want from the data that sucks, and it really seems like the RIAA is fighting desperately to hang on to a 1970s business model that not only is inappropriate to today's world and is alienating their consumers in droves (there are oodles of people, including me, who opt not to buy music we may really like if it has restrictive DRM -- I research this before I buy a particular CD.), but that allows them to sell uncreative mass-produced musical pap at a massive profit.

It's a rearguard action. The world has already moved past the RIAA and its machinations; the RIAA just hasn't noticed yet becuase it has enough consumers in the Baby Boomers to prop up its failed business model for a few more years yet. In the meanwhile, it's missing chances to figure out how to serve the next generation of music consumers because it's absolutely terrified of them, their freedom of data, and their desire for music that doesn't suck.


Mahkno said...

Some randomness.

RIAA sues for an insane amount of money:

The HD DVD drm is cracked:

Then here is a sort of legalese question. Why not go after the RIAA under anti-trust laws? I have read in the past that no artist can get published without going through the RIAA. I have read of artists who would rather not work with the RIAA at all but have to in order to even make money. Strikes me as being a bit uncompetitive.

I am a firm believer that information longs to be free. The more restrictions we have here in the U.S. the less competitive we will be in the world.

Eyebrows McGee said...

"Why not go after the RIAA under anti-trust laws?"

People have, are, and will continue to do so.

However, the RIAA is technically a "trade group," and trade groups are difficult to prove as monopolies (and may not be able to qualify as monopolies under the law, depending on whom you listen to.)

"RIAA members create, manufacture and/or distribute approximately 90% of all legitimate sound recordings produced and sold in the United States." says the RIAA, but note that that's its MEMBERS. Easier to prove monopoly against a single label.

Finally, artists DO have non-RIAA options, both independent labels that don't work with the RIAA and self-publishing.

I think the better lawsuits against the RIAA as a whole and as individual members are for collusion on prices. I've also heard a couple lawyers present really coherent cases for racketeering cases against the RIAA and its members under RICO. I'm not a RICO expert, and while I think it stretched RICO quite a bit, the arguments were good -- and even if they didn't hold up, it'd be a ridiculously embarassing lawsuit for the RIAA.

Anonymous said...

Hey there Eyebrows, it's Crayonshinobi from TheConsumerist.

Very nice article on the RIAA. You hit the nail on the head regarding piracy as well.

I have to admit that I'm a pirate. I don't pirate in the traditional sense of firing a broadside and boarding to get the booty. Nor do I copy movies and distribute or sell them. Nope, I just make a "backup" so that I can watch the DVD when I'm in the US and when I'm in Japan. Apparently, being able to watch a movie bought in the US in Japan (and vice-versa) makes me a criminal. Go figure.

There was a great article awhile back called Hollywood and Hackers by the BBC, with a dual interview with Motion Picture Association President Dan Glickman and Electronic Frontier Foundation's John Perry Barlow. Hot link action

HeartShadow said...

ahhhh, music that doesn't suck.

that WOULD be nice!

(of course, so would music not intended for toddlers, but someday ....)

Eyebrows McGee said...

Hey crayonshinobi! Good to see you!

brian said...

And then there are those of use who have to work within the want us to compress/encrypt/decorrelate the what to the who now?

And the box to do that is going to cost how much?!?

There is a reason we have another beta/vhs war in HD-DVD vs Blue Ray and that is because of DRM.
DRM is one of the major reasons digital cinema is still in development for the masses (but oooh it will look soooo cool)

I run a state of the art screening room with advanced and consumer digital formats that no joke take 30 seconds to sort out the DRM before you even see an image on the screen or the Dolby Digital Bitstream locks for decode.

It's a PITA and we all hop one day the suits deciding will make our techish lives easier and pick a direction.