The State of Media

For quite some time I’ve been watching the various media outlets. I have over two years of links to news articles about the media industry. When reviewing that collection, I notice one overriding theme: A revolution is upon us. We have the music industry suing their customers. We have the movie industry doing the same. And we have music and movie consumers “pirating” content in droves. Why are the producers and the consumers so at odds with each other? It seems that this is more than just somebody wanting something for free. As evidence, I point to the “success” of the iTunes music service from Apple. Not to mention the explosive popularity of LaunchCast by Yahoo.

So why is there such a disconnect between the producers and consumers? For starters, digital media allows lossless duplication. Consumers can learn about music from their friends, and with one click, copy the music to their own players.

What’s to stop them from just keeping the copy that they got from their friends, instead of purchasing their own legitimate copy? This is the question that the music industry is struggling with. So far this is the first time in history that the media companies have had to deal with lossless duplication of their works. In the past, any duplication technology would degrade the media somewhat. After very few iterations, the media would be useless. So, at best, someone would borrow a book, read it, and give it back. Then if they wanted to read it again, they would go out and purchase their own copy. If the person tried to copy the media, their copy would not be as high quality as the original. The same was true of records, and video tapes. Once CDs came out, this started to shift. Now, people could duplicate the media perfectly. There was no degrading. A copy could be made of the copy, and so on. The media companies were fearful, and they started looking for solutions to this threat.

The current solution that the media companies have come up with is a copy protection scheme known as “Digital Rights Management” (DRM) that only lets the media be played by a specific vendor’s player, and only if the consumer is authorized to play that specific media file. This is not a completely bad idea, however, as there is no standard, there are several incompatible schemes in existence. This ends up frustrating the situation because now the copy protection prevents the consumer from enjoying the media that they purchased legitimately. This is acceptable to the media companies since it does prevent the consumer from sharing media with others.

A better solution would be to come up with an open standard copy protection scheme that could be implemented by every player, thereby allowing music to be enjoyed by the authorized consumer, but not shared globally. The problem with this solution is that current copy protection schemes depend on “secret” methods for securing the content. Another problem is, even if a standard was put in place, software could be written to simply skip the authorization step.

Perhaps an even better solution would be to examine the data, and see if a problem really exists. Perhaps duplicating media isn’t as wide-spread as the media companies claim. If there is not such a problem, then DRM is a solution that is looking for a problem. Now, this is not to say that duplication of music is not a problem. It is. But DRM does nothing to curb industrial “fake CD” production. This problem requires policing, investigation, and zero tolerance for purchase managers that turn a blind eye to “really good deals.”

Once the media companies start focusing on ways of delivering what their customers are requesting, instead of suing them out of existence, they will find that the new market is even more lucrative than the old. Otherwise, they may find themselves left by the wayside as new, independent artists produce fresh media outside of their control.

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