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Digital Rights Management Issues Continue to Tangle Consumers

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There was a time, long ago, when we bought something and it was ours.  We could use it, give it away, light it on fire… whatever, but it was ours.  Recently it came to be that something that was ours was also sort of somebody else’s (the recent Supreme Court Kelo case) – or something that was somebody else’s was kind of ours (the more venerable Supreme Court Sony Betamax case) (confused yet?).  Today, things that are ours, aren’t really ours at all.

For instance, a recent Consumerist article outlines one Barnes & Noble Nook user’s problem with losing access to purchased ebooks because of the expiration of a credit card.  This is the result of Barnes & Noble’s efforts at DRM or Digital rights management, and follows on some high-profile DRM hiccups of recent years.  For instance, Sony went ballistic when someone hacked the PlayStation 3 for fear that its DRM would be circumventedalthough any benefit from that may now be lost due to a more recent hack.  Though it backed away, Wal-Mart gave users roughly a week to save their DRMed collections when it threatened to abandon its DRM format – otherwise those collections would be lost.  This is, of course, a similar result to when MSN abandoned its dubiously named “plays for sure” DRM system.  Anyone remember Google Video Store?

In the most recent DRM tangle, the user, “Synimatik,” was a legitimate user who had already paid for the books he wanted to download.  In fact, he wanted to download those books, complete with their DRM, but was prevented from doing so because Barnes & Noble could not charge him for future purchases due to an expired credit card.  Theoretically DRM is intended to protect intellectual property, whether movies, music, or books from being disseminated for free –generally called piracy.  Certainly intellectual property is important – enough so that it’s actually in the Constitution.  However, ignoring the fact that we can hand a physical book or dvd to a friend for free, here a purchaser was separated from his “property” – content (through a license) already paid for – because of something that prevented him from buying more content.  Think of all the different providers with all their different standards for DRM – music, movies, books and more through Google Play, Itunes, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Sony, Asus, Kobo, Mogo… and more.  Remember that on most devices, including android tablets and Ipads, a user can have many different content stores and applications running many different formats all at once.  Are Synimatik’s troubles really about intellectual property, or more about forced consumer loyalty?

What if Synimatik gets rid of all of his credit cards?  Does he lose the rights to all of the books he had paid for?  What if Barnes & Noble loses whatever record it keeps of Synimatik’s purchases – is he then barred from re-downloading them?  Does he have to prove he purchased them?  How would he do that?  Could you do it if you had to?  How much money have you wasted on content if you couldn’t?

By Dov Szego

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