September 30, 2006

Anti–DRM campaign, Apple Store, London.

Today, I put on my activist hat, and went to London for the Defective By Design event outside the Apple Store on Regent Street. Here is a picture of me in my activist hat:

Me handing out leaflets

(Image courtesy Nic Walker – under a CC Attribution-NonCommercial-Sharealike 2.5 licence.)

The reason we wore hazmat suits is that we were “cleaning up the DRM mess”, by the way. Together we managed to hand out nearly 3200 leaflets in 2.5 hours warning people about DRM. DRM is “Digital Rights Management”, according to Big Media – but from the consumer’s point of view, a better term would be “Digital Restrictions Management”. It refers to the copy-protection schemes that companies such as Apple apply to the music you download from, say, the iTunes music store. This restricts what you are able to do with the music you downloaded – you can burn it to CD only a certain number of times, for instance.

At first, this might sound like a good thing, if it prevents people breaking copyright law. However, DRM isn’t all it’s cracked up to be:

  • It hinders you from exercising your ‘fair use’ rights under law, like making backup copies, or changing the format for your personal use.
  • After the copyright expires, and the work is in the public domain, the DRM will still be there – you won’t be able to use it freely, and this endangers cultural development in the future. (Consider that the culture of one generation is always built upon the culture of the previous generation.)
  • For the people uploading music to peer-to-peer networks, DRM is simple to circumvent – in the worst case, they could make a recording of a song using a microphone in front of some high-quality speakers. (With most existing implementations of DRM, there is software that can remove it, which is even simpler.) So in fact, DRM hinders legal consumers more than it does illegal P2P users.

Defective By Design is an anti-DRM campaign, backed by the FSF. The same arguments have implications beyond music; DRM is being applied to electronic books, for instance. The right to read could be under threat, which would affect academia everywhere.

The exasperating thing is, DRM is a complicated issue, that is difficult to explain to people in 30 seconds. I had a few more in-depth conversations with passers-by, though, when they were interested. All in all, I think we were successful in raising awareness of the dangers of DRM in this little corner of London.

So, that’s why I was out there today. In fact, I got quite a bit in exchange for all those leaflets – two chocolate bars, two sticks of chewing gum (all consumed on the journey home) and one condom (not used on the journey home). Apparently, there’s a “National S.H.A.G. (Sexual Health Awareness & Guidance) Week”. I’ve searched, and only found talk about last year’s NUS S.H.A.G. week… oh well.

This whole event nearly didn’t take place. As we reached the corner of Regent Street, a police constable (who turned out to be quite friendly, in the end) stopped us, and asked the ringleader why he hadn’t informed the “local nick”. If we hadn’t been quite clearly harmless (we explained that we wouldn’t enter the store, would only stand outside and leaflet, and were expecting only about 10 people) the police had the option of imposing a 24 hour dispersal order upon us. Oops. I’m sure this oversight will never be repeated; it does raise amusing conspiracy-theory type questions about how the police came to know of the event and the organiser’s name, if they hadn’t been informed. (Are MI5 keeping tabs on extremist organisations like the FSF? Heh heh heh.)

As a side note, the trains to London today were disrupted somewhat by maintenance work. The Coventry line didn’t go all the way to Euston, so I had to change at Harrow & Wealdstone; but there were so many people there that we weren’t let onto the platform for ten minutes.

We ended up in the pub afterwards; I was exhausted. It was really good to meet people I’d previously known only online – including but not limited to Gareth Bowker, MJ Ray, and also Ian of iPod Hurd fame (he admits the project failed miserably, but he seems a nice guy).

I always stand in awe of how busy London is; I was surrounded by more people today than I usually see in a whole week. It made me realise just how massive a task campaigning against DRM has to be – there are only so many leaflets you can hand out. Whatever publicity comes out of events like these will hopefully have a drip-feed effect on the public consciousness over a period of time – but I can see this lasting years. Still, it was a fun way to spend the afternoon, and I really enjoyed it. Thanks to everyone who helped with the organisation!

- One comment Not publicly viewable

  1. Nice one! :-)

    01 Oct 2006, 11:17

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