08 March 2010

Thoughts on digital rights management

As you can tell if you've ever glanced at my profile and taken a gander at my other blogs (which I don't really bother updating much), you know I'm a PC gamer. And I would probably post this on my PC gaming blog, except that this is a consumer rights issue that crosses many mediums. I took note of the recent controversy over the DRM embedded in the game Assassin's Creed II, published by Ubisoft.  DRM has long been a bane of PC gamers, with Sony's infamous SecuROM causing a litany of problems for innumerable users, and it seems that Ubisoft decided to see if they could top Sony in the "treat your customers like crap" department.

Essentially, the game requires the user to be constantly logged into a server on the internet. Other companies have done similar things by requiring internet authentication for updates and downloadable bonus content, but Ubisoft is the first to mandate that players be constantly connected to the internet. Predictably, over the weekend there was a server issue preventing many players from logging on. Ubisoft initially attributed the problem to "overwhelming demand", but later admitted that the servers had been hacked.

There are two significant problems with any kind of DRM. Firstly, it does nothing to prevent counterfeiting. Cracked versions of "protected" video games are available on Bittorrents as soon as, and sometimes even before, games are released. There are many claims from across the internet that Assassin's Creed II has been hacked and is available illegally, though Ubisoft denies this. But even if Ubisoft is right, just how long do they think it will last? In the meantime, legitimate users of the product continue to get the short end of the stick.

DRM is by no means merely an issue with games. I buy almost all of my music online. Most of it comes from iTunes, with the occasional purchase from Amazon MP3. The smartest thing that iTunes did was to ditch the DRM "protection" from their AAC files; now, just as with Amazon MP3, they can be used freely – converted into other file types, burned to a CD an unlimited number of times, etc. Were this not the case, I would almost certainly continue to purchase CDs. iTunes movies prevents customers from burning a movie to a DVD for use in a movie player; it can only be burned to a data DVD as a backup copy. I'm not really sure what this is supposed to accomplish aside from coercing people into buying Apple TV, but it certainly makes purchasing movies from iTunes less appealing.

As we move away from physical media toward digital distribution, DRM will become more pervasive, to the detriment of paying customers. Those who wish to obtain pirated copies of movies, music and games will always have plenty of options to do so, and DRM does nothing but diminish the experience for the end user. Ubisoft is now scrambling to rectify their situation while message boards are filled with cynical gamers saying "I told you so" as many other are actually turning toward piracy precisely because a pirated copy will not be afflicted with the problems affecting legitimate customers. Does that sound backwards, or what?

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