Published on November 3rd, 2014 | by ryankapsar


Policy and Games: Copyright and DRM

Policy and Games is a look at tech policy and the gaming world.  The views expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of KBMOD or any of its contributors.

For companies with copyright, the protection provided by copyright was adequate for many years. However, as I mentioned in my last article, Cassette Tapes and VCRs changed the way that we were able to consume content. We were able to create custom mix tapes, record and watch video at our own leisure and rent movies that had already been released without needing to purchase the content. Copyright holders did not go down without a fight of course, those in the US needed a law suit between Sony (the manufacturer of Betamax, a competitor of VHS) and Universal Studios to determine that recording content for time shifting was covered by fair use (it is). A little fact for you: Betamax was higher quality, but porn decided to go with VHS, so VHS won.

In 1996 the DVD was introduced to the market. This changed quite a few things for the copyright holders. They were able to introduce more controls such as blocking certain functions based on where the DVD player was on the disc. For example, it basically became impossible to fast forward through the copyright warning at the beginning of a movie like it was possible to do so on the VHS. This sort of control was the first sort of additional capability these companies implemented related to how you used their product.

Around the same time as the DVD was being released, the MP3 format was finally solidified. Even though there had been a few other attempts at digitizing music (CD, minidisc player, etc..), this marked the first truly digital type of content in a format that allowed for easy copying and sharing of music. Between the release of the Mp3 and the adoption of dial-up internet, Napster found the perfect time to release an early product that enabled sharing of MP3s. As a result, in a approach similar to the lawsuit over Betamax, we’ve seen many thousands of lawsuits over  MP3s and many attempts to prevent “pirating” of the music. While making and using MP3s is 100% legal, the sharing is not, even if you aren’t sharing for profit, because it violates the copyright holders rights.

To prevent legal copying of CDs and producing MP3s many companies started to introduce Digital Rights Management systems to their content. Which was then lobbied for protection through an act of US Congress called the Digital Millennial Copyright Act (DMCA), where it became a crime to break a DRM system. This causes conflict between the end users and the content providers as on the one hand there are laws in place to protect content through copyrights as well as DRM, while on the other hand there is the way consumers actually want to use the content we purchase.

DRM hasn’t been truly effective and is more likely to hurt consumers, as it has prevented prevents people from playing games properly, such as the disaster of the latest SimCity release, where people with cracks were able to play while paying customers weren’t. There are a few exceptions to this rule but that’s mostly because an excellent ecosystem has been built to enable customers, such as Valve’s Steam store, where people are offered great products at a price they can afford (except Australia, because , well, Australia).

Unfortunately, DRM is never harmless, even if the harm is only to prevent the person that purchased the physical media from copying music for personal use, but in many cases it’s closer to a virus than protection for the content owners and can cause massive harm to individuals. A few years ago Sony started to install a Rootkit DRM on their CDs which would install on your computer without your consent. This would send additional information about your computer to the company, again without your consent. This eventually lead to legal action from a few different states against Sony. More recently though, malicious DRM was uncovered in Adobe’s Digital Edition eReader software.  It was found to be recording both what you do in their system, such as what books you’re reading, what pages you’ve read, things you’ve highlighted and some information outside the program. Some of this is to be expected if you bought the book through them, Amazon does this with WhisperSync so you can read on multiple devices. However, Adobe was also sent other types of information like websites you browse, additional books in your library. All of this is being sent in plain text.

Finally, DRM completely distorts the rules around copyright. Unlike copyright, DRM never expires. Which means that even if the content should enter the public domain, we still wouldn’t have full access because DRM was built into the underlying code of the product. This is extremely problematic and needs to be addressed. Copyright and DRM are solutions to problems that companies like Valve and Netflix have successfully addressed. Content owners can do themselves a favor by easing access and setting varying price points to maximize the penetration to the market.  In the end, we shouldn’t let copyright hurt the consumer or the holder.  There needs to be a solution for both sides, of which Valve and Netflix once again are great examples.

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4 Responses to Policy and Games: Copyright and DRM

  1. jrlu says:

    Actually, the VHS format “won” because JVC was more than happy to license the technology to anyone, while Sony refused to do so until it was nearly irrelevant. Likewise, the Betamax players and recorders were comparatively expensive, and the tapes held a maximum of 1 hour, both selling points which were deciding factors for the American consumer.

    • ryankapsar says:

      Yes, it won because of content and ease of access. Porn was one of the first industries that adopted either technology though. So, it did heavily influence the choice of people buying the technology. The porn industry picked it because it was cheaper, had a decent level of quality at the price they were willing to afford. So, it came down to content and accessibility. With the price being right and the content that was desirable people selected VHS. However, porn went to VHS early in the format war – in a similar fashion that PS3 going with BluRay helped that technology win the HD format war.

      • jrlu says:

        At this point, it’s a pointless argument in semantics.

        My supposition is that Team A won the sport game because their offensive strategy is better.

        Your theory is that Team A won the sport game because they put the ballpuck in the score place more often.

        In the end, we’re both right, but one of those was made possible by the other, and it’s my opinion that the mention of the format wars would have been better represented by the factual evidence than the “hehehe pr0n” anecdote.

        But whatever. Opinions, and all that.

        • ryankapsar says:

          That wasn’t a “hehehehe pr0n” anecdote. it’s part of the evidence as well. Part of what created a typing point in the selection process was content. Regardless of what it was, simply because people don’t want the deciding factor to be a massive industry selecting one format over the other as the winning reason, doesn’t negate the fact that it’s part of the evidence that format won. That’s why I compared it to the PS3, because gaming really did tip the balance towards BluRay over HD DVD. It’s probably less likely that will be argued as the tipping point, but it definitely was. It increased accessibility. I didn’t include the porn comment to get points with anyone.

          Content being the primary reason to select a platform is vitally important. It’s one of the reasons why Google offered a lot of money to some of the early app developers for their platform. It helps eliminate the chicken and egg effect of a new platform. By incentivizing the creating of content as well as the purchase of the new phone (The G1 was heavily subsidized) it helped address both the content and accessibility. It encouraged new adoption and helped ease content lock-in from iOS. It was a huge benefit. That’s really what I was arguing. It is the strategy and some times happy accidents can heavily influence the success of a product. With a product like a technology platform that it’s figuring out the right measure to show success. In the case of both phone OSes and VHS that was measured in content.



I write articles about technology policy and how it affect the gaming community.

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