The DRM Takeover

Digital rights management, or DRM, comprises methods of controlling access to copyrighted media like software applications, video games, television and movies. DRM is imposed on the consumer by the producer of the product, and is intended to prevent piracy and discourage used sales. It takes some of the following forms:

* Key codes which must be entered once (or each time) to verify proof of purchase and ownership. For ages, consumers have redeemed proof of purchase points for prizes, but now, companies are requiring these codes to be entered before the products can even be used.

* A requirement for the physical disc to remain in the computer drive for a program to function, even if it is already installed on the hard drive. These are common but an absolute pain in the ass, and can be circumvented with software patches.

* User accounts like EA's Origin, Ultraviolet and others.

The DRM user account technique requires the consumer to set up an individual account on an online service to access core features within a game or movie. Membership allows a user logged into the account to play a game or watch a movie as it was intended to be consumed. Each account is tied, essentially to a select list of proprietary media the user has purchased, which includes movies, music and games. This is the future of media consumption whether we like it or not, so it merits further discussion so we know what we're getting ourselves into.

One advantage of user account DRM is that members can theoretically access their purchased content wherever they go. The aim here is to stop tying consumers down to specific computers, consoles and televisions, and instead give them universal access to things they've rightfully purchased on a variety of media devices. Popular examples of similar technology include iCloud, Steam and even media hubs like Hulu and Netflix. Numerous other applications employing this popular model are now being devised for portable operating systems. They present us with exciting possibilities about 'freedom to watch what we want, when we want, and where we want.' But all that ad agency-speak aside, there is a dark side to this freedom.

As media gets swept of physical discs and hard drives and blown up instead into the fabled 'cloud,' users are required to access their content remotely by streaming or 'active-downloading' it each time they watch or play. This eats bandwidth, and bandwidth caps have not caught up with demand. Unless you're piggybacking on someone else's network, you pay for bandwidth yourself, and once all data caps get tiered, you won't just pay for media, you'll pay out of pocket for the bandwidth to consume it once you've already bought it.

Additionally, since as a user streaming in from the cloud, you have no local control over the content you consume, studios, producers and developers can edit, censor, modify or restrict content you've already purchased, and they can do it because it's part of your legal arrangement with them when you signed up with the account that gives you access to the product. It may sound like geriatric 'back in my day' bitching, but the days of owning that unpopular or offensive or misprinted piece of software are fast coming to an end. If a studio, or god forbid, a special interest group with enough pull doesn't like content, it can be yanked.

It points to a future when the used game and movie market - along with all physical media and DRM free software - is a thing of the past.

Games are not what they used to be. For instance, most of EA's current flagship titles (games like Mass Effect 2 and 3, SSX, and many others) have many of their most important features tied into the user's authentification with the Origin service. Origin has done a great job at becoming ubiquitous in the realm of console digital gaming, and it's largely succeeding because EA is not giving consumers a choice. They're making it mandatory. If you want to have access to the core content of a game you have just purchased, you must join. Joining is free, of course, but only if you buy the game new, and even then, if you aren't wired in, the game is gimped. Membership buys you what EA and other studios now refer to as an 'online pass.'

This 'online pass' phenomenon promises to bleed into more and more business models, as studios crack down on piracy. More and more games and movies are downloadable, and cannot be transferred to systems or devices where your user account does not dwell. These measures, many say, are the only logical response from an industry beset by rampant piracy and faced with the awesome demands of new media.

Upcoming consoles from both Microsoft and Sony are rumored to employ an even more extreme DRM measure that will change the console gaming market forever. This measure, in effect, 'marries' a new (virgin) game disc or cart with the first console it's inserted into, forever tying them in matrimony for the duration of their life span. So, if you buy a game, it's yours forever. If you want to sell it, tough luck, because outside of your system, it's a worthless piece of metal.

Downloadable media promises to eventually supplant physical media altogether, eradicating the need for highly restricted physical media. In fact, the all digital entertainment you now own has already most likely tied itself to your user account. In all likelihood, unless you obtain a product from a DRM-free site like Grand Old Games (GoG), you already find yourself pulling in from the cloud every time you play or watch.

It's a piecemeal revolution, and its not all bad, but it's happening faster than a lot of people realize. There are just a few things to stay aware of. First we have to be careful about the way we're being asked to use bandwidth. Streaming has become more and more synonymous with consumption of entertainment, and it's only going to get bigger as time goes on. Second, we must come to grips that the days of buying on a budget - obtaining a movie or game used - are fast coming to an end. Studios have long held an uneasy alliance with used game and video retailers, and its an alliance that the advent of more and more advanced DRM technologies will destroy.


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