DRM is a touchy subject

Nothing like a gathering of tech music movers and shakers to stir up the DRM controversy. Editor Jasmine France reports on the SanFran Music Tech Summit.

Jasmine France Former Editor
4 min read

Earlier this week, I attended the SanFran Music Tech Summit, best described as a meeting of the minds of those who are deeply involved or invested in the music technology space. To quote the event Web site: "We will meet to discuss the evolving music/business/technology ecosystem in a proactive, conducive to deal-making environment." I know...sounds a touch boring, but it was actually quite the opposite. In fact, I've come to the realization that conferences with an emphasis on panels are infinitely more informative, entertaining, and relaxing than those centering around massive product launches (ahem, CES). The panels covered topics of varying interest in the music space, and although none really focused on hardware devices, each offered some interesting insight into how technology continues to change to music industry as well as what it is doing to help consumers hear what they want and discover new content.

Now I could go on and describe the three panels that I attended in excruciating detail, but in the interest of not putting you to sleep, I think we'll discuss something that never fails to incite some form of interest: good ol' Digital Rights Management. Ah, DRM...what a tangled web you weave. The technology was a hot topic throughout the course of the conference. Unsurprisingly, the subject turned into a rousing debate during the Artists, Copyrights & Technologies panel, with panelists talking over one another and audience members chiming in out of turn. It was quite the frenzy. And it was great. Clearly, DRM is a touchy topic for many people who are involved in digital content--and that's a lot of people. We have the producers, negotiators, marketers, distributors, purchasers, and even educators, which is the term I apply loosely to myself and other tech editors who have the job of explaining DRM to frustrated users. Indeed, it takes very little provocation for me to get riled up about it myself--if you have any doubts, have a listen to the MP3 Insider podcast.

But back to the panelists. There was quite an array of backgrounds represented, which is always good at these "round tables." The moderator was an independent musician, as was the representative from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the founder of CD Baby (who, incidentally, founded the site to promote his own music--gotta love that). Then, there was the CEO of Songbird, the CEO and Chair of TAG Strategic, and a lawyer specializing in artists' rights. The moderator and the EFF rep (unsurprisingly) were the most outspoken against DRM, essentially noting that it restricted the artist and consumer alike and was the reason that many people acquired music through illegal means (P2P services)--they want to be able to get the music they like and play it on any device they want, i.e. fair use. That seemed to be the general feeling of the audience as well. For the most part, positive comments made by other panelists about DRM were met with at least a hint of disdain. Mostly, I think, because people have trouble separating DRM from its reputation, but there are some logical points to be gleaned from both sides the conversation.

First, many people are willing to contribute directly to the artist--or even invest in them--if they are given the opportunity and easy access to digital music that they can use how and where they please. In fact, there are those of us who believe that given the choice between this and getting free music from a questionable source, the overwhelming majority will choose the former. This also plays nicely into the idea that people value something more if they pay for it (even if it's just a penny), and this is an important thing for the musicians and many of the listeners. Not to say people still shouldn't be able to buy from stores such as iTunes, but once you take away the DRM it frees people up to purchase from many different sources for a variety of players, rather than getting stuck in a monopolostic "one device, one service" situation.

The other point is that not all DRM is bad. For example, music subscription services could not exist without it. The copy protection is necessary in order for the services to keep track of the time cycles of the subscriptions and to cut off access when a user ceases to pay. It's also necessary for Internet radio services to use some encryption--also DRM--in order to stay up and running, and I think we can all agree that having Internet radio readily available is a good thing. Innovative devices such as the Ibiza Rhapsody, the Slacker Portable Player, and the Sansa Connect would also not survive without DRM. The bottom line is that there should be different types of DRM to serve different purposes, but in the end what it should do is open up more opportunities for users to listen to music, rather than restrict and confuse.

OK, after that little DRM love fest I just had, I'm feeling a little dirty and would just like to state for the record that when it comes to piecemeal purchased downloads from online stores, I think they should all be DRM-free. And based on the existence of Amazon Digital Music and recent announcements from Napster and iTunes (not to mention a conversation with Rhapsody), that's the way things are headed...and soon, at that. In the end, the consumer will win (I hope) and that's all that matters to me. In closing, I'd like to push my personal agenda/belief that subscription music is the wave of the future, and quote Ted Cohen, who was the panelist from TAG Strategic: "You don't need to own it anymore...and it's not about 'renting' music; it's about gaining access."