The Coming Age of DRM
One thing I really like about running a news feed of sorts is that it gives me real-time insight into trending topics in the world of data privacy and security. One trending topic I’ve been seeing a lot lately is companies forcing the use of proprietary products over third-party alternatives via internet connections. (Example 1, Example 2.) If you peruse the suggested products and service on my site, you’ll notice that I always put “open source” as a point towards a product. With the rising tide of digital rights management (DRM), I think it’s worth plainly discussing what “open source” is, why it’s a good thing, and why I’ve decided it’s going to be an important factor moving forward.
What is “DRM” and “Open Source”?
While I’m explaining the concept of open source, I want to take a second to explain DRM as that will come into play later. DRM stands for digital rights management, which is basically a fancy way of saying anti-piracy or anti-copyright-abuse. It allows companies to ensure that you’re using a legitimate copy of their software, game, or ebook (or other digital files) rather than a pirated version, and also that you're using it in accordance with the terms of service (ex, not hosting a movie theater in your home). On the surface, this is a great thing. I’m a firm believer that people who create a product have the right to charge for it if they want to, and as such they deserve to be protected from piracy and other forms of theft. DRM is, however, prone to abuse, which I’ll get into later.
Open Source refers to something who’s process has been publicly posted or made transparent. For example, one might create a program and then post the source code publicly on a site like GitHub. Open Source software is usually free, and usually the source code is posted for two reasons: one is so that people can modify it as they wish and improve it independently, and another is for trust and transparency so people can rest assured there’s nothing unethical going on in the background such as unnecessary data collection. A great example I once read said to think of open source as cooking at home and proprietary or closed-source as eating at a restaurant: at home you can see each ingredient and have total control over which ones to add, exclude, substitute, or modify. In the restaurant, your knowledge of the ingredients and control over them is limited to varying degrees (think of the “secret sauce” at a fast-food chain).
The Dark Side of DRM
As I mentioned above, I personally am of the belief that creating a product or service entitles you to charge for it if you so choose. That’s not a requirement, I have great respect and appreciation for people who give those things away with no strings attached, and I think people who do so make the world a better place. But I also respect that some things take a lot of time, effort, and skill, and the creator wants to be compensated for that, and I think that should be respected. However, as with most things in life, that can be taken too far. In the links above, the manufacturers sold a product (a fridge and a printer, specifically, in each example). Those products come with additional accessories that provide a revenue stream, ink and water filters in these cases. In today’s competitive market, it’s often more frugal to find a third-party non-name-brand who offers a compatible part for less than the manufacturer’s product that works just as well. There is nothing illegal about this, and personally I find nothing unethical about it either. Manufacturers are beginning to respond by making their products digitally refuse to use third-party accessories (we’ve already seen Apple do this to some third party charging cables for years).
One could argue that this is a company protecting it’s investment or intellectual property, but I think it sets a dark trend where corporations control all the products in our lives, all but crushing out competition simply because it’s not compatible. When multiple products work across brand lines, it's call interoperability. Think of an Android phone charger. Whether your phone is from LG, Samsung, or Motorola, and no matter who made the charger, it will work for all of them.
Interoperability is a good thing. It encourages innovation and competition and drives down prices. As in the above mentioned Android example, who hasn't gone to a dollar store to replace a lost or damaged phone charger for much cheaper than the manufacturer's official replacement? It works just as well. Anyone who’s been in college during the digital age has seen the gross abuses of DRM and monopolies. Pearson is a striking example of DRM gone wrong, often overpricing digital books and creating clunky, buggy systems for accessing them, and even with their ridiculous prices, books are often rented and not owned during the duration of the student’s course, meaning the book stops being accessible once the semester or license period is up. Nightmarish situations like these can leak beyond protecting intellectual property and copyrights, like when Pearson decided to remove many of their books from the digital libraries of people who had already paid for them.
Where Open Source Comes In
Recently we entered a new chapter of the digital age of truly 24/7 online connectivity. Our cars can host apps just like our phones can, and some even have their own modems built in to connect to the internet. Even our appliances like thermostats, fridges, washing machines, and coffee makers are constantly connected. As connectivity begins to permeate every second of our lives, it's important to not only be aware of who's collecting that data, but also to know that they now have the ability to enforce the terms of service at any time for any reason. And as someone who actually reads the terms of service, I can tell you that the vast majority of them say word for word that they can change at any time without warning. Your car might not report you for speeding right now, but it has the ability to and at any time the service provider can change the rules and start reporting your speeding habits to insurance and law enforcement. In the future your car may only allow you to repair it with manufacturer parts, or may decide that attempting repairs at home voids your warranty. More and more of us are becoming increasingly depend on technology and the connectivity of it all.
Open Source products protect against situations like these because they are designed to be proliferated. You can’t control the competition if you make the product freely available without restriction. You can’t stop anonymous users from sharing and modifying it. Even if you tried to enforce DRM, the source code can be modified to remove that enforcement. An open source fridge, for example, could easily be modified to remove the digital locks requiring the manufacturer’s filters. It protects consumers. Additionally, it’s a trust measure. Many of the services I recommend on my site revolve around communication and protection, and open-source means that anyone can verify that the code does what it claims to. There’s no mystery, conspiracy theories, or lies (theoretically). And with many eyes on the code, weaknesses and bugs can be quickly identified and corrected. As we continue to navigate the murky waters of corporate greed in the digital always-online era, it's time to start being aware and future-proofing ourselves as much as possible. Going forward, I will be placing much more weight on open-source products and services and companies who behave ethically, and I encourage you to do the same.