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Digital Rights Management (DRM)

DRM attempts to prevent or control unauthorized distribution of digital content, usually by encrypting a file and charging a fee to decrypt it. This method suffers from very serious technical flaws, but may succeed regardless.

One of these flaws is the near-impossibility of performing decryption on a user machine without allowing the user to examine the code. If users can examine it, they can reverse engineer it, and if they can reverse engineer it they can defeat it. The DeCSS program for decrypting DVDs so they may be played on Linux systems was created by this method.

Another flaw is that content has to be decrypted to be consumed, and once that happens the user may capture the data. For example, an MP3 file with DRM must be converted to an analog format for listening, and in that state the file may be re-recorded without DRM controls. To counteract this second flaw, DRM typically makes the data viewable only with special software that doesn't support cut, copy or paste.

Effective DRM technology has not yet been created. The tendency of bits to reproduce, to flow and to be copied may well be a fundamental part of their nature. However DRM may not have to be perfect to work: if circumvention is inconvenient enough, then average users may prefer to pay.

The moral case for DRM is that inability to control distribution threatens livelihoods. The moral case against DRM is that it is analogous to a protection racket: creating problems for the purpose of charging a fee for the solution creates inefficiency and waste. The capitalist case for DRM is that scarcity makes business possible. The capitalist case against DRM is that no user would pay for it, and most users would pay to not have it.

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