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163. Copyright and Digital Rights Management (DRM)

By Andrew D. Wright

In former Halifax-based writer Spider Robinson's short story "Melancholy Elephants" a Senator revokes his support for a perpetual copyright bill after being convinced that all art is a finite resource that's discovered rather than created.

There are a finite number of combinations of musical notes and only some of these will sound pleasing to us. There are only so many colors our eyes can see and so many ways to arrange them. New forms of art can be created but even these will have large but not infinite possibilities.

Artists of all description need to be able to plow under creations of the past to have the fertile soil to create the art of the future. Would we have had "West Side Story" if the heirs of Shakespeare were able to sue over the resemblance to "Romeo and Juliet"?

In our real world, for all practical purposes infinite copyright exists, at least in some cases. Corporations can and do own creations, outliving the original creators, and even their heirs.

The very definition of what copyright is and what it should be is contentious. When you buy a record album, what exactly have you purchased? If you play that music in the background at your business without paying any money to the artist, are you violating the artist's copyright? What about the version you ripped to your MP3 player?

Most of us have violated someone's copyright for something or other at one time or other. Today's laws vary from country to country and the trend is to more copyright law enforcement.

Halifax Internet Townhall speaker and Queens University Professor Laura Murray made the point that human culture has always worked on the principle of sharing a good story. She pointed out that chain letters containing poems or lyrics were found as easily in the penny stamp era as in today's emails.

She also pointed out how strict copyright enforcement can hurt new research. What is an academic researcher to do when a copyright holder refuses to allow their work to be quoted? Universities and schools have had to implement strict copyright guidelines on quoted material.

Digital Rights Management or DRM for short is a part of the copyright enforcement picture. DRM is software or hardware designed to restrict access to copyright material. A DVD movie from the store has its video content scrambled so it cannot be easily played back without the proper encryption key. A game will require the original install disk be in the computer to run.

In some cases the DRM can simply not work properly, or be badly thought out, as in the case of some Sony music CDs from 2005 installing hidden software when played on a Windows computer, software that malware writers could easily exploit.

In other cases the DRM might need to contact an authentication server on the Internet. After a few years these servers might be turned off, making the original product useless.

With DRM, purchased content can even be revoked, as was the case in mid-2009 when Amazon removed already bought and paid for copies of George Orwell's "1984" from users with Kindle electronic book readers due to a regional copyright issue.

There has been a lot of political lobbying from corporations with a stake in copyright and DRM. In Canada there has been a lot of pressure, mostly from United States-based copyright holding corporations and their Canadian subsidiaries, for Canada's laws to change to be more in line with harsher American laws such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) which criminalize anything that can be used to circumvent copy protection.


Law Professor Michael Geist's Blog:


Laura Murray's Blog:


Spider Robinson's "Melancholy Elephants":


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Originally published 15 January 2010


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