DRM Sucks!

from Copyfight by Donna Wentworth

Professors are always on the look-out for the "teachable" moment -- that all-too-rare real-life situation that helps demonstrate an abstract, difficult-to-teach point. That's part of why I was morbidly fascinated to hear about the roll-out of "copy-protected" (DRM-hobbled) electronic textbooks at Princeton University, where Edward Felten teaches computer science while writing -- brilliantly -- about how DRM and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) conspire against learning.

There was no book-cracking, but I was hardly disappointed. Professor Felten took the opportunity to distinguish between simply disliking DRM products in the marketplace (don't buy it) and disliking DRM + law and policy like the DMCA because it interferes with the marketplace (you're screwed). "The problem with DRM is not that bad products can be offered, but that public policy sometimes protects bad products by thwarting the free market and the free flow of ideas," he wrote. "The market will kill DRM, if the market is allowed to operate."

I suppose we can see "the market" at work in the electronic textbook company's decision [PDF] to extend the period of time before the digital ink disappears from these "books" (now you can get a year or more of still-restricted use). I can't get very excited about it, though. The move from analog to digital always seems to mean leaving behind the traditional rights and freedoms that nurture real learning. Sure, you'll pay less for hobbled textbook than you would the real thing, but you also pay less for a McDonald's hamburger than you do for one that's actually good for you.