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DRMatically Bad
The case against DRM comes in two flavors, the familiar and the more obscure.

The familiar complaint is about the exclusivity of markets: maybe the price of reading an e-book will be too high; maybe too many people will be shut out of the market. That’s a real concern in developing nations around the world, where the cost of both proprietary code and proprietary culture is wildly beyond the means of most people. Still, it’s a concern that market apologists can quickly dismiss (see Epstein).

But consider the second complaint against DRM – one generally missed by the market apologists. This complaint is more fundamental: DRM abridges our personal freedoms and inhibits cultural transmission. To appreciate it, step back from the digital for a moment. Think instead about human culture as a whole. Participation in cultural life involves a practice that we could call “remix.” You read a book. You tell the story to friends. You see a movie that inspires you. You share its story with your family, to spread that inspiration.

Remixing uses the fruits of someone else’s creativity. There’s no guarantee that it does any favors to the work that is remixed. There’s no requirement that it treat the work respectfully or kindly. The freedom to remix is a freedom to ridicule or respect. Fairness is not the measure. Freedom is.

It is almost impossible to imagine a culture thriving if its people are not free to engage in this kind of practice. Remixing is how culture gets made. The acts of reading, or criticizing, or praising, or condemning bits of culture are how we create things. This is true whether the culture is commercial or not: you cannot limit remixing to things in the public domain. In our tradition, we have been free to remix, whether the stuff remixed is copyrighted or not.

This freedom, however, has been limited, historically, by an important technological fact. Since the dawn of humankind we have been free to remix, but the technology of remixing has been words. We use words to remake our culture. We use words to criticize or incorporate. The ordinary ways in which culture gets made are textual. No one restricted the freedom to remake culture because, in free societies at least, no one purported to restrict what ordinary people did with ordinary words.

So what happens when the ordinary ways in which culture gets remixed change? What happens when the ordinary tools of remixing change? Do the freedoms to remix change as well? Will we be more or less free to remix culture in the 21st century than we were in previous centuries?

Consider how the kids in Porto Alegre think about remixing. They remix culture with words, certainly. But they want to build the capacity to remix more than words. They hope to use computers to remix culture. For most of us, computers are a way to type fast. But for most of them, computers will be a way to speak, using sounds and images, synchronized or remixed, to make art or remake politics.

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