By Benjamin Kwiecien
By Benjamin Kwiecien
You may not know it, but companies are fighting to control your computer. They aren’t even fighting each other; they’re fighting you.
In only a few decades, personal computers have found there way into nearly every home in numerous countries across the globe, and over the years millions of people have discovered just how much these little machines are able to do for them.
Computers have become so commonplace that it’s easy to take for granted, but they have enabled individuals to create and manipulate information in a way previously unimaginable.
While this has worked wonders for many, others find computers to be tricky and disobedient, a common cause of mistrust towards computers in general. Oftentimes this is simply caused by lack of understanding, faulty programming, or misuse.
Recently, however, computers everywhere are becoming part of a naughty trend-DRM, which officially stands for “digital rights management.” Those who understand it, however, refer to it as “digital restrictions management.”
Combined with the popularity of the Internet, personal computers have done a lot for the free flow of information, and that is making some people nervous.
Hundreds of years ago, copyright law was invented in order to make publishing profitable.
The reasoning behind it was that if the state imposed severe limitations on a person’s natural freedom to copy and distribute written works, the subsidized publishing market could afford to produce more content and do so more cheaply.
While technology has advanced considerably, driving down the cost of publishing digital information to almost nothing, copyright law has advanced little. For this reason, copyright is becoming harder and harder to enforce when computers are involved.
Desperate to protect not only their current profits, but also the profits they would like to imagine, publishers (with the help of software companies) distribute software that they claim will prevent its users from violating copyright-by force.
The type of software and how it functions varies greatly. For example, iTunes, a popular music downloading program, distributes music in a secret, locked format. If the user would like to convert the music into a different digital format, the iTunes software will politely inform them that the operation cannot be committed.
This is not being done for technical reasons; of course digital music can be converted into different formats, which is useful for practical reasons such wanting to play music on a brand new music player that does not understand how to play iTunes files. Rather than being helpful to the user, the software is denying basic functionality.
The worst part of all this is that the software will stop you from doing anything its creators decide, even if what you are doing is not in violation of copyright law! Even though it is possible to find software that helps circumvent DRM, the production and dissemination of such software or even information related to how it works is illegal in the United States.
This has lead to the arrest of people designing software as innocent as an application for loading e-books.
The implications are staggering: not only may DRM producers arbitrarily decide how your computer is allowed to function, but their decisions are given the strength of law.
Apple’s software might seem like a healthy compromise; while it is a nuisance to some, and may lessen the value of their product (by restricting its use), other people aren’t bothered much.
In fact, DRM creators desire that the consumer not be aware of its existence. This was certainly the case when Sony Music distributed thousands of music CDs with software on them that, when inserted into a PC running Microsoft Windows, secretly inserted itself into the core of the system without the user’s knowledge or consent.
Sony claimed that this software was only meant to prevent the user from copying CDs, but it also caused computer systems infected by it to become unstable, more vulnerable to viruses, and unable to function normally. Worse still, the software had the potential to give Sony complete control over consumer systems.
Thankfully, that software has been recalled, but its very existence is shocking. What can be said about an industry that treats its consumers like criminals?
It’s important to be aware of what DRM is, what it does, and how it may be used against you.
Without that kind of knowledge, you unknowingly put yourself into a compromising position.