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It's Time to Give Digital Rights Management the Boot

Today is the Free Software Foundation's Day Against DRM. Why not use the occasion to choose alternatives wherever you can?

Today may be "Star Wars" Day thanks to its lispy slogan, "May the 4th be with you," but it's also a day the Free Software Foundation has chosen to call attention to a tech-enabled problem. Specifically, by designating May 4 as its Day Against DRM, the organization hopes to draw attention to the high costs of digital rights management.

DRM, of course, is technology often added by media companies to restrict users' access to digital content such as music, movies, games and software. It's pretty widely despised by consumers, not surprisingly, but big companies such as Apple continue to use it as a way to control access to their content.

Through its "Defective by Design" campaign, the Free Software Foundation hopes to bring about the abolition of DRM technologies.

"DRM products have features built-in that restrict what jobs they can do," the group explains. "These products have been intentionally crippled from the users' perspective, and are therefore 'defective by design'. This campaign will identify these 'defective' products, and target them for elimination."

Along with Apple's iPad and Amazon's Kindle, Sony is a particular focus of the Defective by Design campaign recently in light of its PlayStation Network security breach.

A Loss of Control

Today's Day Against DRM, then, "is an opportunity to unite a wide range of projects, public interest organizations, web sites and individuals in an effort to raise public awareness to the danger of technology that requires users to give-up control of their computers or that restricts access to digital data and media," the FSF explains.

Campaign banners and events can be shared on the event's wiki page, which also offers printable materials and a guide to DRM-free living with links to online stores, video/music players, software and hardware that are sold without the restrictive technology.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, it should be noted, holds a similar position on DRM as well as conducting its own intellectual property campaign, which includes software patents as well.

'DRM Helps Stifle Innovation'

I am no fan of either DRM or software patents, as I've already noted before. DRM may be slightly less of an issue than before in this era of non-owned streaming video, for example, but it's alive and well in plenty of other areas.

Why is DRM a problem? Lots of reasons, but the one I find most compelling from a business perspective is this one:

"Corporations claim that DRM is necessary to fight copyright infringement online and keep consumers safe from viruses. But there's no evidence that DRM helps fight either of those," as the EFF points out. "Instead, DRM helps big business stifle innovation and competition, by making it easy to quash 'unauthorized' uses of media and technology."

When it comes to stifling innovation and competition, you can bet small and medium-sized businesses are the biggest losers.

Choose DRM-Free Alternatives

For most small companies, of course, it's probably not yet practical to try to avoid all products that involve digital rights management--indeed, that would be a challenge for anyone.

But on this Day Against DRM, I do think it's worth remembering what DRM means and what it costs, and becoming more mindful about the purchase choices we make. Check out the FSF's DRM-free guide; if there are DRM-free alternatives available, why not choose them instead?

Few but the very biggest stakeholders believe DRM is the right approach to protecting the rights of content creators. Until something else wins enough support, however, small businesses would do well to avoid it where they can.

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