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The War on Unrestricted Access

In the film Traffic, Michael Douglas, playing the newly appointed US drugs tsar, questions his ambitious assistant’s attested ability to protect him by citing the young man’s failure to protect his predecessor in the job. In many ways the world of drugs legislation and the war on drugs portrayed in the film resembles that of the war on unrestricted access to online content.  (4/12/2001)

It's a world in which the bad guys always look like they’re winning, where the kids get – and will carry on getting – whatever they want despite all the talk on Capitol Hill, and a world in which ambitious young companies tout protection to the latest industry moving into the internet (the book industry), having failed entirely to protect the last one (the music industry). For the world of digital delivery, as we currently know it, is the world of digital rights management and of the war on unrestricted access to music, a war which, like the war on drugs, can be of benefit only to those who actively participate in it.

The urge to protect internet content, to put it in a box and to give the key to that box only to those who have paid directly for it, is understandable. The primary way in which revenue has been raised from music recording and book publishing up to now has been to exert control over content in order to be able to sell that content at above the marginal cost of delivery, a revenue model enabled by copyright law. This has had the secondary effect of limiting the size of the audience for content to those who are prepared to pay for it in a one-off transaction. The points at which revenue is raised are at the points of friction along the path of delivery. It is therefore not surprising that the music industry’s original game plan was to digitize content, put it in a protected, DRM shell and charge per download, with revenue being raised at the one apparent point of friction, that of the interface between consumer and online retailer. This is where the digital book industry is at now, and that’s what makes analysis of why the music industry failed so drastically with this approach so important.

We try to control because we like to control. Control makes us feel secure and protected. This, coupled with an inability or unwillingness to explore the revenue models for delivery environments in which control over content is not exerted, in which the audience is unrestricted and in which content cannot be sold above the marginal cost of delivery, goes far in explaining the unquestioning acceptance of the need for digital rights management by the digitzing content industries. Yet, apart from anything else, the technology doesn’t even do what it is supposed to do – the demise of the SDMI and the user-unfriendliness of the security software are examples of this failure. Pay-per-music-download failed because the content was already out there, unprotected and free, and because even if there was a good reason for paying for DRM-packaged content (for example, the superior quality of the Liquid Audio format), the restrictions imposed by DRM technology, particularly the inability to transfer the content between computers and listening devices, proved unacceptable.

The internet is a distribution environment in which the protection of content is both impossible and, as the music industry is slowly beginning to learn, undesirable. Even if those running the music industry were to continue fighting this notion, it would be in vain because those who run so much of the music industry, along with those who run much of the publishing industry, don’t really run these industries anymore – the likes of AOL and Vivendi do. And the idea that these companies, which understand the internet better than most because they are the internet, are going to try to impose a revenue model based on control – a revenue model designed for inefficient delivery environments – upon the hyper-efficient delivery environment that is the internet is just plain ludicrous. So book publishers should forget all notions of digital rights management, of control, of restricting the size of the audience and of listening to the ambitious young companies that offer them all the protection they can buy. They didn’t protect your music industry peers and they will not protect you. The war on unrestricted access is already lost. This needs to be recognized.