Almost exactly five years ago, Steve Jobs wrote "Thoughts on Music," a short essay arguing against DRM-encumbered music sales. "DRMs haven't worked, and may never work, to halt music piracy," said Jobs, promising that Apple would embrace DRM-free music sales "in a heartbeat." The argument worked: iTunes began selling DRM-free music from EMI just a few months later and went completely DRM-free in 2009. Since that time, iTunes has become the biggest music store in the world, and every other major music retailer now sells DRM-free music for download. The success of DRM-free music sales would seemingly prove that a thriving digital economy does not require technological limitations on consumer behavior.
But a quick scan of the market reveals DRM is making a startling comeback as the media industry turns to new cloud-based distribution models. Scores of modernized DRM systems are behind some of the most successful media services on the market: Spotify, Rdio, Netflix, Amazon, and Apple all still use proprietary and incompatible DRM for music, movies, books, and apps, and the movie industry is pressing ahead with UltraViolet, the most ambitious and wide-ranging DRM system ever devised. DRM has become a foundational element of the consumer media experience, especially when it comes to streaming services; Apple's success in removing it from sales of downloaded music appears to have blinded the industry to its continued and growing use nearly everywhere else.
But as DRM becomes more and more pervasive, it paradoxically becomes less and less restrictive: iTunes makes it trivially easy to share apps, books, and movies between devices registered with Home Sharing, Netflix will now happily authorize 50 devices per user account even as it wraps each movie stream in Microsoft PlayReady DRM, and Spotify and Rdio users likely never consider the layer of DRM managing the music files they've synced for offline playback. (Spotify is particularly ironic: it delivers music in the open-source Ogg Vorbis format, but then wraps synced files in proprietary DRM that expires after 30 days unless the user re-connects to Spotify.) In fact, DRM has become so invisible to the user that one wonders why it's being used at all: as Jobs predicted, the use of DRM hasn't made even the slightest dent in media piracy, and it seems a silly waste of time and money to continue building DRM systems so advanced they appear to not exist in the first place. Modern DRM is invisible to the user and ignored by the thief.
Nowhere is this contradiction more evident than with UltraViolet, the universal DRM system and rights locker platform being pushed by a consortium of Hollywood studios and tech companies. A consumer who purchases an UltraViolet video receives a centralized rights token that enables any other UltraViolet-compatible app or service to play or stream that video, theoretically enabling direct price competition between retailers and broad compatibility between apps and devices that support UltraViolet. Along the way, no fewer than five different DRM systems are potentially engaged — UltraViolet isn't itself a new DRM system, but rather a coordinating service that links existing DRM systems together. This coordinating layer will indeed make it easier for consumers to shop for videos from a wider variety of retailers, and the idea of accessing video purchased from any service in a single location is a nice one, but UltraViolet's Mark Teitell admits the system won't stop determined pirates. "There are always going to be people who have time to mess around with BitTorrent."
So why even bother trying to coordinate DRM systems when dropping them altogether would be even simpler? Why did the movie industry spend several years and millions of dollars building a system no more effective at stopping theft and less flexible for consumers than no system at all? Teitell told us that without DRM, "the business of producing compelling video content couldn't pay for itself over time," and said that the "big guiding belief" behind UltraViolet is not stopping piracy, but rather presenting "a truly compelling legitimate alternative for those consumers that weren't fixated on stealing — they want freedom and flexibility, and we're giving that to them."
Asked why movie industry needs DRM while the music industry is doing fine without it, Teitell didn't have an answer — he simply said that while music and movies are similar in many ways, they're also different in many others. Instead, he encouraged us to focus on the things UltraViolet allows consumers to do, rather than the restrictions; remember, he said, "the R is for rights — people like rights. We have the Bill of Rights." Unfortunately, it would seem that the media industry has been busy imposing its own Bill of Rights Management.