It’s not a bug, it’s a feature
Frustrated Windows users from the 1990s are all too familiar with the implications of “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature” – a phrase that excuses limitations of software. Now proponents of DRM seem to be rehashing the same old excuse
Amazon’s Kindle has been the 2010 Christmas rage, but the DRM limitations on the product are endlessly infuriating. The adverts trying to tell me that I can read my Kindle books on any device are incredibly misleading: you can read your ebooks on your desktop and your laptop and your Kindle and your iPhone and your Android phone, because there’s a Kindle app for all of them. But what, dear Amazon, happens if I want a Sony e-reader, or if my laptop happens to run on Linux? In effect, tough beans.
What’s worrying is that this seems to be a deliberate strategy in the content industry, and the trend is catching on. Ultraviolet is an initiative from the major Hollywood studios and music labels (only Apple and Disney aren’t on board) with the helpful tagline “Freedom of Entertainment”. It claims to allow you to use any of your Ultraviolet-enabled content on any of your devices. So you buy a movie once, in any Ultraviolet-enabled format—this could be a DVD or BlueRay disc, or it could be a download—and you can view it on your PC, your laptop, your smartphone, or your old-fashioned television. That is, as long as all of your devices are Ultraviolet-enabled too.
Details of exactly how it will work and what devices will be Ultraviolet-enabled are still fairly unknown. It looks like an internet connection will be required, so unless you buy the DVD/BlueRay, you will not have a local copy of your content - and here you were thinking you could just spend that 10-hour flight catching up on Desperate Housewives. It also looks like you will be able to register up to six other users on your household account, which makes a nice change from having to buy separate copies of your content for you and your significant other. And it looks like the DRM will (try to) stop you from viewing your content on non-Ultraviolet devices.
One issue of some concern is that of privacy: building a cloud-based digital content library means that the amount of data the companies behind Ultraviolet will have on you (what you watch, when you watch it, what device you watch it on) is quite considerable. Even if they manage to refrain from using it for targeted advertising, I would be very surprised if they didn’t find another way to monetise it. There are also privacy issues between different household members; I suspect parents will be able to have a locked part of the account to restrict access to content they deem inappropriate for their children, but what about other users on the same account?
But more concerning is the issue of being sold DRM as a "feature". If something claims to “free my entertainment” and enable consumer choice, then that’s what it should be expected to do. It should not tie me to a particular set of devices – if you thought you’d be able to play your DVDs on your iPad, think again, because Apple’s chosen to opt out of Ultraviolet. Nor should it tie me to a particular operating system – the lengths a Linux user must go to in order to load music onto an iPod are simply inconceivable, and I suspect the Linux coverage of Ultraviolet will also be non-existent. Furthermore, I should not have to sign lengthy licensing agreements which tell me what I can and can’t do with something I have purchased. There’s a good reason why I still buy CDs rather than downloading from Amazon or iTunes, and I suspect Ultraviolet will have similar legalese attached to it. All of these things tie me up and limit my choices, which is the exact opposite of what Ultraviolet claims to do.
In principle, Ultraviolet does try to meet a genuine consumer need. It suggests that the industry is finally grasping the idea that consumers do not appreciate having to buy the same product again and again just because technology changes. It's also attempting to cater to the demand for the greater flexibility of being able to view content wherever and on whichever device happens to be at hand. But whilst the idea is sound in principle, the implementation leaves a lot to be desired – Ultraviolet are effectively selling something which limits choice (a bug) under the pretence of something that enables choice (a feature).
If the industry really wants to free entertainment and enable consumer choice, they should perhaps listen to someone like Free Software activist Richard Stallman, who proposed two methods for funding art and content creation – taxation or voluntary donation. Interestingly, both of these suggestions are implicitly based on the assumption that content is a public good; unfortunately for the entertainment industry, the profit margins on public goods aren’t anything like what they’re used to.
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