May 3, 2013 was the Day Against Digital Rights Management (DRM) according to a press release from the Free Software Foundation (FSF). Timed to coincide roughly with the 20 year anniversary the open World Wide Web, FSF and more than two dozen other organizations announced the circulation of a petition opposing DRM measures to be delivered at the World Wide Web Consortium in Boston.

Digital Rights Management is a set of new technical enforcement measures proposed by the World Wide Web Consortium designed to enforce copyrights more stringently. Essentially the technology will control what you can and cannot do with media and devices you buy. The many opponents of DRM argue that the measures are contrary to information flow and will restrict the open Internet far more than is necessary or reasonable. By the time the petition was delivered on May 3, it had 25 signatories and almost 25,000 signatures.

So, what’s the big deal? There are several major issues with DRM technology—or, at least, the business models that come with it—that should be of note here.

DRM technology controls come imbedded in digital works, so they are within them when when they go to the consumer. This means that they work after consumers have lawful access to the work, giving producers “downstream” control over the ways that consumers use works they acquire in legitimates ways. There are many different forms of DRM technology being developed, which means that providers have lots of choices, but consumers don’t (not to mention licensees who also don’t choose).

The American Library Association is very concerned about DRM technology, for example. DRM technology limits the secondary transfer of digital works. This is a problem, because secondary transfer is all libraries do. They buy the original copy and then loan the copy out repeatedly to members of the community. Each time they do this the borrower becomes the secondary transferee. If DRM technology eliminates the “first sale” doctrine by limiting secondary transfer of works, libraries and communities are in trouble.

Along these lines, DRM technology that enforces “pay per use” and time limited models for control of information hurt not only libraries but archives, research and educational institutions, and other public preservation systems like museums. These models for use of DRM technology also limit the transfer of content into different formats, further hampering the preservation of information. All of these issues present serious problems for public institutions, not to mention our human culture generally. Finally, it will be crucial to preserve longstanding exceptions to Copyright Law such as “fair use,” parody and educational use.

All of these issues are of real concern given the current DRM atmosphere. This is an issue to watch.

About the author

Karla Lant

Karla Lant is an Adjunct Professor for Northern Arizona University and a freelance writer. A former trial attorney in major felony criminal defense, her areas of legal expertise include forensic science, intellectual property, biotechnology, and constitutional law. Lant also focuses on tech trends, science and education in her work.

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