a conveyor belt throwing a lot of floppy disks into a pool of lava

Is DRM jeopardizing our cultural heritage?

Thanks to restoration, reproduction and conservation technologies, we have hundreds and in some cases thousands of years worth of cultural assets available. Old books, sheet music or stage plays can be enjoyed by consumers or used by researchers to learn more about a bygone era. We can even look at cave paintings from tens of thousands of years ago.

But are we making sure that the cultural assets we currently produce will be available for generations to come?

The problem is this: 

Art and entertainment have been commercialized to the extent that future non-commercial use of our products is secondary to short-term profitability. Additionally, recent technological developments have made it harder and, in some cases, impossible to conserve consumer products for the future.

I think the only way to make our current works available to future generations is to make it mandatory to provide a DRM-free version available to the public (or a public institution) when publishing a cultural asset.

Public Conservation Efforts

Libraries have helped conserve knowledge and cultural assets. If a book is published in the United States, copies are typically made available to the Library of Congress in order to obtain a Catalog Control Number. This means DRM (Digital Rights Management) free copy and not a license to access it on a server somewhere.

But, as we shift away from physical books to digital media like movies and video games, everything moves into a grey zone. While there are efforts like the National Digital Stewardship Alliance to conserve this non-traditional media, this is mostly based on voluntary industry contributions. Similarly, the Library of Congress also has a program to conserve films, only some movies are selected and an addition to the archives still depends on the cooperation of the movie studio involved and availability of the work.

Unlike a book publisher, a film production and streaming company doesn’t have to make their cultural goods available to the public for conservation. Comparably, a video game publisher doesn’t have to provide the source code and DRM-free assembly of their games to the public to run on the personal computers of the future. Since shareholders wouldn’t benefit from public domain availability, there’s no financial incentive to ensure that the product will be available after commercial use.

The biggest challenge, however, I see not only with the requirement (or lack thereof) to make a work available to a public institution, but with the inability to conserve the work in the first place.

Complexities of Conserving Digital Works

Digital media corporations not only make it their priority to provide (and commercialize) their products in the present rather than the future, they also actively sabotage efforts to conserve their products, referring to it as acts of copyright infringement. The DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) makes it illegal to tamper with copy protection mechanisms. There are recent efforts and rulings that legalize the work of historians to conserve and restore old digital media, but the rules aren’t clear.

In addition, the problem is that even with the ability to operate legally, conservationists face a technical challenge. DRM practices have proven to be not effective because they slow, but do not prevent the illicit reproduction of protected works. Through legal and technical challenges, the effort required to conserve a work is increased and evolving technology makes it likely that, in the future, some DRM measures will, in fact, be uncrackable. Once protected by DRM, without additional effort on the the publisher’s side, a work will be “protected” forever. This means that even after the copyright for a work ends, typically 70 years after the death of the creator, DRM measures aren’t magically removed and the conservation problems will persist.

Interactive media like video games often rely not only on code that is executed on the user’s home computer but also server code that is run in the provider’s facilities. The only way to conserve these works as a whole and make the program operational for decades to come is to conserve the client as well as server code. Some companies even made single-player experiences require a connection to their servers, for the precise reason of making it harder to run unlicensed copies of the software. (Which also got circumvented for now). From the user perspective, this is all fine, until somebody pulls the plug.

It is unlikely that DRM servers will be available for hundreds of years.

Significant Works of Our Time

Of the works of the past, usually only the best of the best, the ones that conversationists deemed worth conserving, survived. This was often a matter of resources. A couple of thousand years ago, paper used to be expensive. And until around 100 years ago, audio recording equipment used to be unavailable to a lot of artists that weren’t commercially successful, so mostly recordings of successful artists are available to us now.

Now, it is no longer the most significant works that are easily conserved. Indie game developers often give their games away for free and unpopular musicians make their works available for download on SoundCloud in an effort to gain popularity, but commercially successful artists have the luxury of employing intricate networks of DRM measures that ensure that the money is rolling in. Arguably, the significant works (like big budget video games) are also the ones with the most DRM protection. 

A big production video game could be an example of a culturally significant work. Often, video games require connection to DRM servers from multiple providers. If either them happen to go offline, the products, and with them, the years hard work of thousands of artists and developers will become unavailable. This doesn’t necessarily mean that video game publishers want their products to be unavailable in the future. Rather than ill-intended plot for planned obsolescence, I think the issue is mere neglect of the cultural significance for future generations and the fragility of the digital infrastructure. 

Or let’s look at a movie available on a streaming service. If something happens before anyone with access to the source material can make a backup copy of a DRM-free master, they’ll be lost forever. If somebody would like to enjoy these digitally available works in 150 years, just like we can read a Mark Twain book now in 2020, what are we doing to ensure that they can? 

Protecting Our Cultural Heritage

We can’t wait for rights owners to voluntarily contribute to conservation efforts. In particular, intellectual property owners of large, culturally significant cultural works, are aware of the costs and their potential losses through unlicensed copies, adding more and more DRM technology to their products.

Otherwise, the 21st century will, historically become a dark age. There will be folk tales of video games that people used to play and movies they used to stream, but no records, with all those works being lost to DRM.


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