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As a libertarian and avowed capitalist pig, I've watched digital rights management evolve from Macrovision to CSS and finally into the DMCA-enabled gobbledygook of iTunes and MovieLink with a somewhat dispassionate eye. From my role as a consumer (and occasional producer) of creative digital content, I have seen the gamut of views being espoused on the implications of DRM:

  • "It infringes upon the copyrights God bestowed upon me at birth!"
  • "It's too restrictive! Two legs good, four legs better!"
  • "It's the only way content providers will agree to provide any content!"
  • "What do I care about DRM, as long as I can watch my Best of Hee-Haw any time I want?"

Perhaps the strangest of these (to me, at least) is the third one, suggesting that content providers will rely on DRM exclusively to provide content in the future of the Internet. "How can they run a successful business predicated on the widespread distribution for free of their product?"

The great idea of capitalism is that the entry to market is not oppressive in cost. To put it more frankly, the actual costs of writing, arranging, recording, mixing, and distributing a song is relatively small. Presumably, the quality of each of these aspects is affected by the amount of money put into each of them, and the various costs and benefits of paying for services must be considered. Do you pay a well-polished producer $5,000 to sit behind the board for your new LP? Or do you do it yourself and risk a craptacular sound quality? Do you pay for session musicians, or bribe the local high school chamber orchestra with a pizza party? Do you buy a nice new $9,000 tube mic to get warm vocals, or will that $50 Shure knockoff suffice? The sheer breadth of degree between the lowest possible quality song and the highest possible quality song is the result of a capitalist market.

With this in mind, the distribution of a song is also part of the capitalist market. That is, the content providers and copyright owners of a new song have choices about distributing the song. DRM is not mandated on any content provider. It's perhaps the most salient point of this argument, and any other argument regarding restrictions on any part of your life. Nothing is permitted; everything is permitted.

In fact, almost by the very virtue of choices, opposing businesses will choose opposing business models. Recently on CNN a story ran that said Commerce Bank would be refunding all ATM fees for customers of theirs who use a competitor's ATM and have at least $2,500 in their checking account. This follows in an increasing trend of major banking companies abandoning the ATM fees that they, in view of the law, have the right of imposing on ATM users. The reason is simple: it gives the impression of generosity and friendliness, and ATM fees are a minimal part of a banks' revenue. On the other hand, independent ATM operators (those generic QuickStar ones you see in convenience stores and airports) make their living on ATM fees. Both business models will no doubt thrive, but the point is that business operations choices almost always lead to competitive choices.

The same is true with DRM. All MP3s on Warp Records' website are DRM-free. And not only that, but Warp has provided their entire back catalog, DRM-free, at their online store. From Aphex Twin to Boards of Canada to Autechre to Prefuse 73 to Broadcast, Warp has a number of electronica's most prominent artists on its label. Offering their content DRM-free is called "revolutionary", "seismic", and, in one apparently biased online rag, "defiant." Is it really, though? The market simply views this as a competitive choice, one used to generate revenue for the company.

Recently I came across The Scene, a free fictionalized serial about a group of software pirates who only communicate through the Internet. I downloaded an episode - not my thing, but not necessarily poorly made, either. People at Slashdot started bitching that Sony may have had a hand in its production, that it's "fake" (because we all thought Alias was a factual representation of the espionage industry), and that it was just an advertising shill for the various sponsors of the show.

The strange thing is that somehow, the posters at Slashdot acted as if their very souls had been crushed by any of these revelations. At the end of the day, this is simply creative content being written, arranged, produced, and distributed by some entity (known or unknown) over the Internet, DRM-free, and free as in beer to boot. Take it or leave it.

In the age of the future, things like Red vs. Blue, The Scene, and Ourmedia will become more the norm for lo-fi production. in fact, we may even see a rise in independent projects by more established artists that see DRM-free release. Certainly removing DRM will be considered a benefit by some users, who may be more likely to try your wares. Yet the truth is that DRM is ancillary to content, not mandatory. Content will come into existence with or without DRM, and the content will never be dependent on the DRM; only the other way around.

Certainly there is enough venture capital being thrown around to generate a system of DRM-free models with the marketing and publicity to compete head on with the RIAA's clout. Labels such as Matador, Epitaph, Century Media, Sub Pop, and Warp have been building niches for themselves as independent labels that can offer artists large exposure, without sacrificing themselves to the DRM restrictions the major players of the industry repeatedly demand of all of their competitors.

Sometimes it seems like people who argue against DRM are assuming that the only content that matters is content that come from the majors - Sony, Warner Bros., Universal - and that DRM must be embraced in totem by all content providers. Such flimsy logic is hard to dispel - it speaks clearly to the black-and-white issues to which people cling so readily. And in the end, what vanity is it of users to expect all content providers to fall back to the most free form of distribution? What vanity is it of content providers to think their content is the only content that matters? It is the spectrum of content, combined with the spectrum of consumers, which define the market, and nothing else.

So, digital rights. Some people will have 'em, some people won't. Content providers will gravitate toward one model or the other. Alternative methods of production and distribution will rise and fall. The only thing constant is change. Cliches will dominate the DRM news cycle. In the end, digital rights extend only as far as the providers are willing to exercise their domain over them. And at the end of the day, we can define content providers as everyone who has ever put something on the Internet: from major labels to amateur songwriters to the writers here at everything2, such as myself.

Yeah, you probably almost forgot. And this place is DRM-free. So what's wrong with that?

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