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Customers or Criminals? How the Anti-Piracy Campaign Fails to Distinguish the Difference

Customers or Criminals? How the Anti-Piracy Campaign Fails to Distinguish the Difference

All companies try to protect their products from piracy. Unfortunately, many Digital Rights Management and Copy Protection schemes end up treating legitimate customers like criminals. Companies are finally beginning to realize it's bad business.
Tim Nordstrom
A year ago, I made the decision to build a new computer. My old Dell Pentium-4 was beginning to show its age, and after purchasing the game Oblivion, and realizing my computer was about to have the electronic equivalent of a heart attack trying to run it, I dropped the cash for a new system. Rather than selling or junking my Dell, however, I decided to turn it into a quasi-media center. The graphics and sound cards were only about six months old, and the P4 still had plenty of power to play music and videos. So, I hooked the system up to my 42" plasma television, and began working on it. My first step, after retrieving all the data I intended to keep, was to format the hard drive. My second step was to do a clean install of Windows XP.

I never made it past the second step.

To my chagrin, after typing in the Serial Number that came with my computer, Windows XP would not activate. I later found out that a year earlier, in 2005, Microsoft had disabled online activation of Windows OEM products in order to combat piracy. Now, in order to activate the legally owned copy of Windows XP that came with my Dell computer, I would have to call Microsoft's customer service and explain why my copy of Windows is legitimate, and then receive a code from the customer service representative. I might have actually done that, had I not been living in South Korea, thus requiring me to pay for a long distance call, and to stay up at odd times to catch them during business hours.

Microsoft's decision to make it a hassle for its legitimate customers to use the software they paid good money for is, unfortunately, a symptom of a wider problem: the current habit of companies treating paying customers like criminals. Sony BMG also got burned by this very issue in 2005, when it decided to have its music CDs surreptitiously install files onto customers' PCs in a manner similar to malware. They eventually had to recall all the CDs with the software, and were sued in several states over the issue.

Certainly, Sony and Microsoft are not shadow boxing when it comes to piracy. Piracy is a problem, and companies and artists alike have a right to do what they can to ensure that their products are being sold legitimately. I don't begrudge them the right to make a profit, just like every other business does. The reality, however, is that there always has been, and always will be, some piracy in the world, and there is simply no way to stamp it out completely. The battle over copy protection and digital rights management has been going on for years, and for every measure industry has come up with, a resourceful user has found a hack, crack, or workaround.

Back in the days of 5¼" floppy disks, some software publishers would require the user to type a word or phrase from a page in the manual, as a form of copy protection. Inevitably, on Bulletin Board Systems, USENET, and other venues, users would post the answers to the limited number of questions in the copy protection scheme. When CDs came out, and the number of questions increased, people just copied the whole manual. When DVDs were first encrypted to prevent copying, it didn't take long for someone to develop a program to decrypt them.

I am not suggesting that because all copy protection will inevitably be broken, companies should give up on fighting piracy. I am saying, though, that most of the DRM and copy protection measures are not doing much to combat actual piracy, but are doing a lot to alienate real customers. Encrypting a DVD might make it impossible for John Q. Computer-User to make a backup copy of his DVD, but it won't do much to stop a real DVD pirate from copying it. Putting copy protection on a PC game might make it impossible for Gary Q. Gamer to play without the CD in the drive, but it won't stop a real software pirate from distributing it on Bit Torrent.

Moreover, by essentially criminalization their own customers, companies may be driving people to the very thing they are trying to put a stop to: file sharing networks. Customers who might otherwise purchase music from a legitimate source could be driven to download them from file sharing sites solely so they don't have to go through the hassle of dealing with the myriad of restrictions placed on their music by Digital Rights Management and anti-copying restrictions. Nobody wants to feel like they have to consult an attorney every time they buy a new gadget for their music.

The good news in all of this is that the tide seems to be turning strongly against DRM, at least in the music industry. Remember the Sony BMG fiasco I mentioned earlier? Currently, no major music companies place DRM software on their CDs, including Sony BMG. Steve Jobs spoke out against DRM, asking music companies to stop using it on songs that are available on Apple's I-Tunes service. Granted, Jobs' opposition wasn't altruistic―a DRM-less I-Tunes would give them a leg up on the competition. However, even that is a good sign―companies are seeing that, from a business standpoint, DRM is simply not worth it.

Part of me wants to take them to task for not seeing what should have been obvious from the start―people want to have the right to use their purchased music and movies how they please. People are willing to pay for downloaded music as long there aren't a thousand strings attached? Imagine if, 10 years ago, the music industry had looked at the success of Napster and developed a similar product: customers could legally download and pay for whatever songs they want, no strings attached. You know, like I-Tunes, without the DRM. Like what Steve Jobs proposed, and will probably eventually happen (EMI is already on board with it).

Yeah, I would like to take someone to task for not seeing this. But on the other hand, I suppose we shouldn't criticize progress, no matter how slow―even if the progress is just going back to what worked 10 years ago.