Reflections on the UK All Party Internet Group Report

First of all, apologies for the extended absence. There’s been plenty going on in the digital music space whilst I have been away so I’ll try to get a few entries posted over the next few days.

First up is the report of the UK All Party Parliamentary Internet Group Report on DRM. There’s actually a lot of common sense and some worthy recommendations, though also the odd misconception.

The over-arching finding that is that DRM is becoming too far-reaching. A key recommendation is that content with DRM (be it CDs or downloads) should be clearly labeled, explaining exactly what consumers are allowed (and not allowed) to do with the content. This is a solid recommendation. However there are a couple of problems. Firstly, in the UK we don’t have fair use at all. Unlike the US and most of the rest of the EU, UK law does not provide a right to reproduce copyrighted material for private use (with the exception of making copies for reviewing purposes). So getting all high and mighty about the restrictions on digital content is not being even handed, as we have archaic restrictions on what we can do with normal music consumption. Our laws are out of step with the world and the 21st century and it is to be hoped that the Gowers Review on Intellectual Property willl seek to redress this. If we are going to state what DRM prevents consumers doing we equally should put a label on the covers of all CDs (i.e. those without DRM) stating that it is illegal to make a copy to listen to in the car, for a friend, to put on your MP3 player etc. Of course, it’s not in the interest of the music industry to educate consumers that much about intellectual property law, but if that process is going to happen in the digital space, the rest of the market is left incongrous if not addressed.

The overall sense that the findings of the group give is a dislike of the direction DRM is going and the way in which it is being implemented (SonyBMG’s Rootkit debacle is a key example). The report refers to the way in which DRM ‘distorts’ markets and makes a series of recommendations to redress this. These concerns echo some of the recent French legislative debate (though of course in much more understated English terms). And there’s good reason that there are concerns both sides of the channel: Digital Rights Management has stopped being rights management and has become rights protection. The emphasis of DRM is on preventing people doing things rather than enabling them to do things. The implication is that people are assumed to be thieves first, and music fans secondly. The majority is being penalized for the minority, yet the logic is broken: the minority is normally tech savvy so they are more able to circumvent the restrictions whilst the law abiding majority are not. The report pointedly recommends that “ the government do NOT legislate to make DRM systems mandatory.” The report also takes a strong line on accountability: “We recommend that OFCOM publish guidance to make it clear that companies distributing TPM systems in the UK would, if they have features such as those in Sony-BMG’s MediaMax and XCP systems, run a significant risk of being prosecuted for criminal actions.”

The legislative tide is turning against DRM…

Finally I mentioned there were a couple of misconceptions, the most notable was a recommendation to investigate digital music pricing. Which is all well and good, except that the report infers that the fault lays squarely at the feet of the digital music retailers, with no mention of the record labels, which are of course the key culprits.