Faust made his deal with the devil. In return for the devil’s service and knowledge, Faust agreed to surrender his body and soul after 24 years’ time. By the time Faust realized the folly of his decision, it was too lateToday we are being asked to make a similar bargain-not with the devil, but with the entertainment industry. The promise is a future in which we’ll download music and movies over the Internet at rock-bottom prices. It’s a future where digital content-books, magazines, newspapers, and databases-will be at our fingertips. It’s a future where software and information will be rented, and people will pay only for what they use. And it’s a future in which computers will be inherently secure because they will be unable to run viruses and other hostile programs. It is, in short, a high tech paradise.
But it is a trap.
Every bargain has its price. In this case, the price is “digital rights management”-an industrywide project that has been under way for more than a decade and is likely to accelerate within the coming year. Digital rights management starts with a system for marking the “rights” that consumers are granted when they pay for digital media. For instance, an electronic label might say, “This music may be played on your computer but not shared with a friend.” Or, “This magazine article may be viewed twice and printed once, and then it must be deleted.” But the flip side of the so-called rights is another r-word: restrictions. Rights management systems will make possible software that will watch your computer and make sure you don’t break the rules.
One of the great things about computers has been that you can throw away any software that comes with them and install something you like better. Digital rights management software shreds that freedom. Underneath this software is new hardware that will prevent computer users from removing the “rights management system” and installing their own systems that do not respect digital restrictions. That hardware, in turn, relies on the force of legislation. The 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, in particular, makes it a crime to circumvent digital rights management software-or even to distribute information that tells other people how to do so. And proposed legislation, the Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act, would require all computers sold in the United States to incorporate federally approved rights management technology. Similar legislation is working its way through Europe.
Essentially, consumers will be giving up their right to control their own computers. Citing the widespread piracy of software, music, and videos, the entertainment industry argues that consumers have abused that right. But managing consumers as children will have the side effect of smothering much of the innovation that made the Internet possible. Digital rights management could quash the computer revolution as we know it, transforming our machines from tools for creation and exploration into appliances that run Microsoft Office, play MP3s, browse the Web, and do little else.