Info With A Ball And Chain

When Steve Jobs introduced the iTunes music store a few weeks ago, the acclaim was nearly universal. Nonetheless, a small but vocal minority viewed the online emporium as a menace--because the iTunes program somewhat limits a consumer's ability to copy and share songs. Even though Apple had broken ground by getting the record labels to accept fairly liberal terms of use--Apple-oids could listen to purchased songs on three computers and burn CDs--this bunch objected to any restrictions at all. They saw the iTunes store as a sugar-coated inducement for consumers to accept a new reality: some stuff on your computer isn't really under your control. And as far as that goes, the critics are right. Say goodbye to the "Information Wants to Be Free" era. We're entering the age of digital ankle bracelets.

The key to this shift is the technology that protects information from unauthorized or illegal use. It's called digital-rights-management software, or DRM. Like it or not, rights management is increasingly going to be a fact of your life. Not only will music, books and movies be steeped in it, but soon such mundane artifacts as documents, spreadsheet files and e-mail will be joining the domain of restricted information. In fact, the next version of Microsoft Office will enable creators of certain documents to issue restrictions that dictate who, if anyone, can read them, copy them or forward them. In addition, you can specify that the files and mail you send may "sunset" after a specified period of time, evaporating like the little tapes dead-dropped to Peter Graves in "Mission: Impossible."

On the one hand, it seems that digital-rights management is a no-brainer. What's wrong with media companies' building in antitheft devices to protect their property? And shouldn't the creator of a document or e-mail be able to determine who can read or copy it? Surely, piracy is to be condemned and privacy to be cherished: DRM can go a long way toward implementing both those sentiments.

But certain critics consider the very concept anathema. "I don't think that DRM is in and of itself evil," says David Weinberger, who recently published an essay in Wired titled "Copy Protection Is a Crime Against Humanity." "But in the real world, it is evil. There's no user demand for it. It's being forced upon us by people with vested interests."

Edward Felton, a Princeton computer scientist, believes that DRM perverts the basic deal of the Internet: the free flow of information benefits all. "The basic problem is that DRM is trying to turn information into something other than information so you can't pass it on," he says. "People want to control their technology, and the more the technology is eroded, the harder it is to use."

DRM's defenders say that the technology actually empowers users. Without protections, entertainment companies would never release their products in the digital marketplace. Microsoft's Erin Cullen says that DRM software is flexible enough to limit illegal uses (like sharing a song with millions of "friends" on the Net) while allowing consumers to enjoy music and films in ways they always have.

In practice, though, DRM can stifle legal activity, too. For instance, copy protection on DVDs blocks not only illegal copying, but the "fair use" ability to copy a frame or short scene into a home movie or school project. (To do this, you have to break the copy-protection scheme--an act that is specifically outlawed by the anticonsumer Digital Millennium Copyright Act.)

Critics like Weinberger also complain that computers enforcing DRM systems lack "the essential leeway by which ideas circulate." Sure, Microsoft rights management will allow creators to set the rules. But will corporations dictate that every e-mail message and document be fitted with a virtual ball and chain: no copying... no forwarding... no amending... no archiving? Whistle-blowers won't be able to do what they do," says Joe Kraus of DigitalConsumer.org.

Even Congress, which has so far ignored consumers and coddled rights holders on copy protection, is waking up. Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, is about to introduce a bill "to ensure that our nation's media producers and distributors do not clamp down on the ways in which [consumers] traditionally and legally use media products."

We do need legislative help in keeping DRM under control. But ultimately, its fate will be determined by our own actions. As we have with the iTunes store, we'll vote with our dollars when we're satisfied that restrictions on our music and movies allow us the access we need. And corporations may well come to understand that it's bad policy to strictly hobble the flow of information. Will we suffer the worst-case DRM scenario: a world so constricted that we can't cut or paste a line from a poem, or forward the latest sick Internet joke to our buddies? I doubt it. But I do think that the files that arrive in our in boxes and jukeboxes will be on tighter leashes. And while I understand the reasoning for this, the prospect doesn't gladden my heart.