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Copyright, and DRM are some of the biggest issues in the entertainment world today.  From plagiarism to fair use, copyright law is used for both good and bad every day.  DRM, or Digital Rights Management is a field where publishers desperately try to stop crackers from illegally accessing their products, with the honest customers usually suffering in the crossfire.   Both of these things are rife with controversy, and vast numbers of people have dedicated their lives to eradicating or promoting these practices.

Copyright

Copyright laws have been around for centuries.  At first, it was a way for governments to control the spreading of ideas and information. In more recent times, copyright is more about protecting the rights of a work’s creator.  Unfortunately, it’s begun to venture back into oppression territory at the hands of large publishing companies.  It’s not uncommon now to hear about a popular video being removed from Youtube because it contains a small clip from a television show.  This is a mild example, however.  There have been many incidents where copyright law is abused to silence those whose opinions are a threat.  That’s not to say copyright is an inherently bad thing.  It’s important for creators to control how their works are displayed and distributed.  In most cases, copyright law is implemented to protect those who may not have the influence to protect their works themselves.   As with any law or practice, there is a lot of confusion about copyright.  Brad Templeton has a good article that explains a lot of myths and confusions commonly held about copyright.

Copyright Controversy

A lot of the controversy surrounding copyright comes from it’s abuse by publishers, and how easy it is to violate.  In the early 2000’s, a program called Napster had become very popular.  While today it exists as a legitimate music-provider, it’s early purpose was to share files, usually music.  When publishers and artists discovered that users were sharing and copying their music without paying for it, they were understandably upset.  Napster was ordered to actively prevent copyright infringement by it’s users, and this resulted in it’s collapse.  The branding of napster has changed hands since, but the original Peer-to-peer service has been shut down permanently.  More recently, the Bittorrent protocol has filled this void, with the additional controversy of it’s notorious bandwidth consumption.  Lawsuits against BitTorrent tracking sites such as The Pirate Bay and Demonoid have resulted in bringing their existence into the public consciousness.  Many people believe that copyright is an outdated and unnecessary concept, however, and there exist strong anti-copyright movements in much of the developed world.  The Open Source software movement is driven by the belief that software should be free and open for anyone to use and modify as they see fit.  This has a lot of support for a number of reasons.  The obvious cause being that open source software is free as in beer (no cost). However it is also free as in free speech (anyone can use/modify it).  Copyleft is a concept that incorporates both ideas.  A copylefted work may reserve some rights for the author, but leave others free.  The controversy over copyright will probably continue for years, decades, or even centuries, but It’s unlikely to ever disappear entirely.

Digital Rights Management

Digital Rights Management seems like a new concept to many people, but it’s actually been around for quite some time.  DRM refers to technologies used to prevent unauthorized use of  a product.  DVD region coding is an early example. About.com has a good explanation of that technology.  The purpose there was to prevent differences in DVD release schedules from being circumvented.  Many would argue that it’s real purpose was to force consumers to buy multiple copies of a DVD.  While most people would never encounter this DRM in action, it proved extremely annoying for those who travel a lot, or who order foreign DVDs.  As with any digital security system, the system was quickly cracked, and there is a thriving market for unlocked DVDs and players that can play all DVDs.  This is true of any DRM.  The encryption key for Blu-Ray video disks was cracked not long after they became widely used, which circumvented much of it’s DRM.  The MPAA began an aggressive campaign to prevent the key from being distributed, demanding it be removed from websites under the DMCA.  It led to a “cyber-riot” where users on the popular news site Digg posted the key repeatedly.  Eventually, they had to relent, and the key can be found in numerous locations on the web.

DRM in Gaming

Another field where DRM is prevalent is computer games.  Electronic Arts has become notorious for draconian DRM practices, often requiring an active internet connection to play their games.  Valve has come under similar criticism for the inherent DRM-like features of their Steam Digital distribution system in the past, but since has gotten better.  Like with DVD region coding, Game DRM appears to mostly punish legitimate users while letting pirates off mostly unhampered.   What often happens is someone cracks the DRM, uploads the crack to the internet, and before long anyone with an internet connection ca play the game for free.  A study released in 2009 concluded that for the most part, DRM only hinders legal users.  So why does DRM still exist?  It exists because no matter how ineffective or annoying it is, it provides a measure of peace to those who stand to lose from piracy.  Fortunately, some companies are trying to come up with better ways to deal with the ineffectiveness of DRM.  Amanita’s game Machinarium suffered from a 90% piracy rate due to it’s lack of DRM.  Their response was to conduct an “amnesty sale.”  The game’s price was dropped from $20 to $5, in an attempt to convince players to pay some small token amount for the game.  Another interesting ‘solution’, if it can be called that, is focusing the game on its multiplayer component.  The majority of pirated games cannot be played multiplayer over the internet, because it’s very easy to authenticate a game client that way, and very hard to circumvent that authentication.  Multiplayer-only games like World of Warcraft are only played over the internet, and as a result, have a virtually nonexistent piracy rate.  Unfortunately this requires an active internet connection to play the game, but the blow of this is softened by the fact that the game simply doesn’t exist offline.  It’s unlikely that there will ever be a catch-all solution to the annoyance that is DRM, but hopefully game developers will bend to player hopes for less oppressive DRM.

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