DRM on Streaming Services

For the 2015 International Day Against DRM, I wrote a short essay on DRM for streaming services posted on the Defective by Design website. I’m republishing it here.

Between 2003 and 2009, most music purchased through Apple’s iTunes store was locked using Apple’s FairPlay digital restrictions management (DRM) software, which is designed to prevent users from copying music they purchased. Apple did not seem particularly concerned by the fact that FairPlay was never effective at stopping unauthorized distribution and was easily removed with publicly available tools. After all, FairPlay was effective at preventing most users from playing their purchased music on devices that were not made by Apple.

No user ever requested FairPlay. Apple did not build the system because music buyers complained that CDs purchased from Sony would play on Panasonic players or that discs could be played on an unlimited number of devices (FairPlay allowed five). Like all DRM systems, FairPlay was forced on users by a recording industry paranoid about file sharing and, perhaps more importantly, by technology companies like Apple, who were eager to control the digital infrastructure of music distribution and consumption. In 2007, Apple began charging users 30 percent extra for music files not processed with FairPlay. In 2009, after lawsuits were filed in Europe and the US, and after several years of protests, Apple capitulated to their customers’ complaints and removed DRM from the vast majority of the iTunes music catalog.

Fundamentally, DRM for downloaded music failed because it is what I’ve called an antifeature. Like features, antifeatures are functionality created at enormous cost to technology developers. That said, unlike features which users clamor to pay extra for, users pay to have antifeatures removed. You can think of antifeatures as a technological mob protection racket. Apple charges more for music without DRM and independent music distributors often use “DRM-free” as a primary selling point for their products.

Unfortunately, after being defeated a half-decade ago, DRM for digital music is becoming the norm again through the growth of music streaming services like Pandora and Spotify, which nearly all use DRM. Impressed by the convenience of these services, many people have forgotten the lessons we learned in the fight against FairPlay. Once again, the justification for DRM is both familiar and similarly disingenuous. Although the stated goal is still to prevent unauthorized copying, tools for “stripping” DRM from services continue to be widely available. Of course, the very need for DRM on these services is reduced because users don’t normally store copies of music and because the same music is now available for download without DRM on services like iTunes.

We should remember that, like ten years ago, the real effect of DRM is to allow technology companies to capture value by creating dependence in their customers and by blocking innovation and competition. For example, DRM in streaming services blocks third-party apps from playing music from services, just as FairPlay ensured that iTunes music would only play on Apple devices. DRM in streaming services means that listening to music requires one to use special proprietary clients. For example, even with a premium account, a subscriber cannot listen to music from their catalog using an alternative or modified music player. It means that their television, car, or mobile device manufacturer must cut deals with their service to allow each paying customer to play the catalog they have subscribed to. Although streaming services are able to capture and control value more effectively, this comes at the cost of reduced freedom, choice, and flexibility for users and at higher prices paid by subscribers.

A decade ago, arguments against DRM for downloaded music focused on the claim that users should have control over the music they purchase. Although these arguments may not seem to apply to subscription services, it is worth remembering that DRM is fundamentally a problem because it means that we do not have control of the technology we use to play our music, and because the firms aiming to control us are using DRM to push antifeatures, raise prices, and block innovation. In all of these senses, DRM in streaming services is exactly as bad as FairPlay, and we should continue to demand better.

2 Replies to “DRM on Streaming Services”

  1. When people subscribe to a streaming service, they are tacitly agreeing to the a premise that is quite pleasing to the RIAA: they are paying for access to a stream, not for the stream itself. People don’t want to record it; and they know that if they did, that would be wrong – it goes against the agreement they entered into, of their own free will, with the streaming service.

    Therefore, users aren’t really losing anything because the streams are DRM’d. This is very unlike the case with downloaded music, where Napster habituated a lot of people into “doing things with music files”, which Apple then undermined. There was never a Napster for streaming, so people aren’t missing anything.

    Last but not least, I would very much like to know how we have a recorded music industry if the music is given away freely. (It applies to other content, but I want to keep things concrete). Simply not having a music industry is a valid answer, but I would like that to be an explicit part of people’s broad argument against DRM, because it’s absence weakens the argument.

    1. I agree that is a reasoning people use but the reasoning is faulty. There are many problems with DRM. One huge problem is that DRM requires proprietary systems and computers controlled by others instead of you. This is completely incompatible with free/open source software which has many principled and practical benefits. This alone is perhaps the most important reason to oppose DRM (IMHO) and it’s just as true for streaming media as it is for stuff you download.

      There has been lots of work on alternative business models. You should check out the book Promises To Keep by Harvard Law School’s William (Terry) Fisher for one very detailed example. And that’s just one.

      That said, if the way the music industry is running itself is unjust, unethical, and unfair, it’s not the responsibility of the people on the losing end to come up with other effective business models. Imagine if people opposing child labor were asked to first explain how industry and agriculture could be equally sustainable and efficient without oppressing kids. There’s a very clear difference in the degree of the harm being done here but the principle is the same.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *