UK watchdog howls at DRM woes

New laws needed as DRM technologies walk over consumer rights, believes the NCC

Alun Williams
16 Jan 2006

A government watchdog for consumer interests has declared its opposition to the rise of Digital Rights Management - the means by which content providers control access to their products.

The National Consumer Council (NCC) is calling for new laws to better protect consumer rights when it comes to enjoying digital content.

Citing the geographic restrictions on DVDs and the content protection surrounding certain CDs, the organisation believes that the use of DRM is constraining the legitimate consumer use of digital songs and films. Furthermore, according to the NCC, it is also undermining consumers existing rights under consumer protection and data protection laws.

'Because of the current situation, consumers face security risks to their equipment, limitations on their use of products, poor information when purchasing products and unfair contract terms,' declared Jill Johnstone, Director of Policy at NCC.

To make its voice heard, the NCC has made a submission to MPs on The All Party Internet Group inquiry into Digital Rights Management. The full PDF of this document can be read here.

In essence, the body feels DRM has been used as a way of shifting the balance between private rights and public access that has traditionally been established through the legislative process.

'Given the accelerating deployment of DRM in a number of commercial sectors, there is a real danger that the previous settlement over access and use will be rewritten without any parliamentary or regulatory oversight,' states the submission.

This is the crux of the matter. In the past, copyright law provided adequate protection when analogue reproductions of content produced imperfect copies, and so provided a motivation to buy the original. This struck a balance between rewarding personal initiative and maintaining access for wider social benefits. With digital works, however, there is no motivation to possess the original content. Each copy is perfect. But the terms of access to such content can be rewritten in terms of licence agreements. Yet with the same stroke this potentially sacrifices rights (and concepts of 'fair use') granted under copyright law. Contract law effectively taking precedence over copyright law.

Interestingly, the NCC also questions whether the types of information required by DRM, in order to enforce rights, may infringe the rights to privacy that consumers expect under the Data Protection Act.

The NCC goes on to highlight the Sony 'rootkit fiasco' and issues surrounding music downloads, such as DRM systems limiting consumers' ability to transfer purchased music onto other computers they own or to other devices. This, they point out, means that 'consumers who wish to change their music service providers or playback devices are often obliged to repurchase music files in a different format'.

When it comes to 'renewable' DRM systems, which can change consumers' usage rights after purchase, it namechecks iTunes, citing that it 'has changed the amount of copies of downloaded material their [sic] DRM allows in various jurisdictions'.

Founded in 1975, the self-avowed aims of the NCC are twofold, according to its website: 'first, to carry out research to find the consumer issues of the future, and second, where change is needed, develop policy solutions and campaign and work with providers of goods and services to ensure that these policy solutions work'.

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