DRM in the Hardware, Minus the Mandates

Karl Lenz points to an interesting article about DRM in the Japanese mobile phone market.

I think Karl’s statement that the article says DRM works, contrary to arguments like Cory’s, is misleading and misunderstands Cory and others a bit.  The question is: does DRM stop piracy – does it stop the acquisition of unencrypted content over P2P/the darknet?  I would bet not.  Indeed, the article’s author quotes Cory on this point.  DRM still affects people who have purchased content through the phones, just as a single purchaser of an Apple iTunes song might have the skill to decrypt the file.  However, the DRM didn’t really keep that person from downloading the file illegally.  It’s only once they have chosen to purchase legally that DRM may have an impact.  On this latter point, the article also cites Ernest approvingly.

The paper does point to one way in which even unencrypted content’s acquirability might be irrelevant.  Many of the phones limit the file types you can play and send to friends.  Imagine a phone that can only play encrypted formats.  You could download all the MP3s off P2P that you want, but none of them would be usable.  In this case, one would expect DRM to be a stronger impediment to piracy.

However, there are a couple general reasons to think that such restrictions won’t help.  First, such restrictions may simply make users convert their unencrypted files into an encrypted format so the phone will recognize it.  In this way, users could still acquire files from the darknet for free.  You can gain all the benefits of using the phone without ever purchasing the file.  Also, note that, at this point, we’re really talking about people building hardware that can’t function in certain ways.  You can gain all the benefits of the phone, but if the phone is specifically built so that it lacks functions, you simply won’t be able to use those functions.  We’re still not really talking about DRM preventing piracy – illegally and legally acquired content simply have restrictions put on them once acquired.

The question also remains: will all technology makers stop innovating new uses and embed such restrictions in all their hardware?  This article notes that this is the trend in the phone market, where many producers use closed firmware to control what goes on their products.  At the same time, the trend in music portable players is away from this.  Even Sony is starting to include MP3 support.  And can one imagine the iPod without MP3 support?  Technology makers who allow playing of unencrypted formats and innovate new uses will continue to have a competetive advantage  – crippling technology and including usage controls serves no clear benefit for the consumer when they have the option to buy feature-rich products with unencrypted format support.

Of course, one can imagine a tech mandate that enforced restrictions across the market.  Or a liability standard that tended toward similar results.