Digital Rights Management – Is this Morally Permissible, Or Has it Gone too Far?
Digital Rights Management - may this be conceived to be a legitimate action to protect against copyright infringement, or is this a new wave of monitoring what we do, and control how we use the item(s) that we purchase, restricting our will? But first, we must preface with what Digital Rights Management actually is, what it is loosely tied to, and so on so we may fully grasp why this is such an issue.
Background: Digital Rights Management, (DRM in short) as explained before was originally implemented to help cease the pandemic that is known as piracy. This began to surface after the inspirational idea of the “peer-to-peer” (P2P) client, Napster, came to fruition. Many clones followed thereafter, and it was clear that the inevitable needed to be maintained. DRM first came about within the music industry, to help make sure that people paid for the artists' music. Why music? This is the most easily transferable piece of data; somewhat small, and takes virtually no effort to use once acquired. This would be as opposed to games or any other software, which use deterrents such as cd-keys/serials, online registration/authorization or what have you. As music piracy became more along the mainstream, developers such as Sony (essentially the pioneers of DRM for CD's; Microsoft and Apple supported a different form of DRM, we will discuss this later) decided to take the wherewithal to produce artists' music with laced files that included “spyware” which in order to play the CD on your computer, one must had to install the given software, which fed information online back to Sony, et cetera. All of which was unbeknownst to the consumer, which of course led to much debate. One article from HowStuffWorks.com explains the usage of DRM, while in reference to the Sony case. In terms of the spyware installed, as mentioned in the article, it would be nearly impossible (or if not possible at all if knowledge of such an area was limited by the consumer, which of course it is) to uninstall the hidden applications. If one were to explain the essence of DRM in its purest form, it would be to take a new level of protecting the company's copyright, and to enforce the idea of eliminating illegitimate actions to eventually become non-existent. To place it in the most unbiased manner; “Digital rights management is a far-reaching term. It encompasses any scheme to control access to copyrighted material using technological means. In essence, DRM removes usage control from the person in possession of digital content and puts it in the hands of a computer program.” DRM is more of a principle, rather than an idea. The principle is that companies desperately wish to hold control of the content sold, and not to let piracy occur. Of course, this is the inevitable, since society is far from a utopia where utilitarianism principles may be applied. In summation, companies are infuriated with piracy, not sure what to make of it, so the extreme is taken. This of course is the norm in any situation when one feels out of control of the inevitable. The article proceeds with the understanding (just as mentioned above) about why all of this is coming about.
The stances on the subject are rather clear-cut. Let us proceed with the anti-DRM/RIAA/MPAA/rootkits. The companies do indeed have a legitimate claim, but once again are stepping over their boundaries. But since no boundaries have ever been defined, this makes it difficult to morally conclude that all claims are indeed legitimate. One example stated was the idea of the “fair use” plan, where the owner has the ability to copy a legitimately purchased DVD, for his/her own desire, and not for resale or share. But as mentioned, computers do not have a moral idea whether or not the end result is intended piracy, or merely a backup. Since DRM is a principle, it may be applied to other ideas, such as why “Audio CD's” and “Data CD's/DVD's” are even sold in store. On a level of consideration, what else would an “Audio CD” may be used for? The idea alone of selling such a product is making an infinite amount of implications that seem to contradict the RIAA and the DRM system. Since the whole idea is merely a concept, it may applied very loosely to other areas. One of the other “morally skiddish” places of interest consist of rootkits. A rootkit is an application (normally laced) and upon execution, it installs software and runs a hidden process(es) without the end-user knowing, or agreeing in any form or another. Essentially, in a more succinct manner; “A rootkit is a set of programs designed to corrupt the legitimate control of an operating system by its operators.” The most famous example (also quite recent) was when the Bioshock game came with piece of software as described above. The rootkit installed is called SecuROM, a well known program used to monitor several things, such as how many times a specific program is installed, how many computers it is installed on, if a CD/DVD of the title is in the CD/DVD tray, et cetera. 2K Games decided to subvert a warning message entirely when installing the game (which is a requirement when installing such software of any kind, else proven illegitimate) and proceed to have users install this software without notification. In this case, the rootkit was used to monitor DRM activity, and to limit the user from installing the offline/single player game several times over. This of course outraged most owners of the game/demo. This is one of many examples where companies take it upon themselves to act upon copyright protection, but how far is too far? This begins to skirt along the edge of wire-tapping, in a more technologically advanced sense. One other damning example that not very many people tend to realize is the early implementations of DRM theory within Windows XP Home/Pro. Norwegian computer scientists discovered that whenever the end-user chooses “automatic updates,” Microsoft copies the user's entire registry hive for their own examination of installed applications on one's computer. In turn, as pure speculation, if employees who may exam such hives happen to find an illegitimate cd key, they may conceivably report their findings to the company at hand. This is clearly a breach of privacy, and is constantly overlooked. I will not go into detail about DRM OS, (aka Windows Vista) since the entire point of the OS was to monitor all content usage, but this is neither here nor there. Another question arises, is this what is best for society, or for the company? What might come to fruition next, RFID's to track every action performed, and then sent to a data mining group to help target ads specifically for you? There is no definitive line to be seen from any angle in regards to how far this may go. The first stance may be considered almost a “cop-out” per se, considering the fact that the stance justifies it to be morally permissible by virtue of one wrong plus another wrong becomes perfectly acceptable/legitimate. Even so, it is quite difficult to maintain a perfect moral compass if the so called “morally sound” companies who justify all that is “right,” do not exactly maintain the idea of Utilitarianism. Which in this case would be to constantly apply the exact theory of DRM whilst not eluding to Rule Utilitarianism, (applying whatever one pleases if it is in their own favor, no absolute global constant). While in deduction, it seems as though the interests are geared more towards the producers, and ignoring the needs of the consumer.
Now for the devil's advocate; from the company's point of view. DRM is the only way of protecting the producer, and all who are involved in the production of these works. If nothing of the such was implemented, then there would be pure copyright/piracy infringement fury, worse than a plague. Even though almost all infringement limitations have been “cracked”/decoded or what have you (most recently, HD-DVD's encryption string was discovered) it still serves as a pleasant deterrent. The principle is used as a scare tactic, to help keep society in line. This idea has been found in other walks of deterrents, which help discourage “wrongful” acts of duty. One may think of DRM as an applied method of law, subverted through society to help keep the peace. If we step back and view the issue in its entirety, without bias, are not the companies actions/motives pure? What might Kant think of such a situation? Let us think about the martyr and the hero. If both actions are in purity, and the same result is achieved, then this may be viewed as the “good.” After all, the company is placing itself in the best interest of their shareholders, to hold and protect their data so that they may achieve their pinnacle of success. At the same time, this ensures that the client will remain with the company, and thus becomes reciprocal. The idea of DRM when applied solely to the music industry, and the act of purchasing audio CD's, may be seen in such a light that a categorical imperative for a universal law is being applied. The maxim being, software is applied to every produced byte of audio data will be laced with copyright management, thus disabling the illegal transfer of audio data to person(s) who did not pay rights to listen/use. Now, every person who purchased the music legitimately may listen to it, whilst illegitimately, they may not. In a perfect/untouched society, this works, and everyone is content.
Finally, back to reality. Digital Right Management as a theory on paper is perfectly morally permissible. But when companies skirt around privacy issues (or in certain cases flat-out trample over the mere idea of privacy without any moral compass) this becomes quite questionable. The second part is a totally different issue all together, and is simply a misuse/misinterpretation of what the theory was originally developed for. Piracy is indeed an issue, and it should not be condoned/taken lightly, but when harsh/irrational actions are taken where no repercussions occur, the line must be drawn at some point. Companies who support the idea, such as Sony, take on the Rule Utilitarianism mindset. Sure, it is perfectly legitimate to install spyware unbeknownst on a consumer's PC while monitoring usage along with taking other data, but when the shoe is on the other foot, and a mail server of Sony's is accessed, (once again unbeknownst to the employees) and private data is viewed, obviously this is a whole different story. One cannot “pick and choose” his or her absolutes, write their own rules, and expect everyone to play nicely with such an idea. This defeats the purpose for what is best for society as a whole.
In summation, Digital Rights Management, when efforts/motives are pure (not to reap from the benefits, and to better the society by applying a pure maxim) it is morally permissible. Else, it is blatantly wrong, and not for what is “best” for all. Quite a convoluted concoction of conflicted interests between society and the machine.