25 Arguments for the Elimination of Copy Protection

I kept wincing while writing this article. I suspect you'll do the same while reading it.

By  |  Monday, October 13, 2008 at 3:25 am

Can I begin with a few disclaimers? I believe that people who create things deserve to be rewarded for their efforts. Which means that I think that stealing entertainment and software is wrong. Actually, come to think of it, if there was a form of copy protection that was never a hassle for paying customers but which effectively prevented piracy, I might enthusiastically support it. (Go ahead, mock me if you must–I’ll wait.)

With that out the way, I also believe this: Copy protection (also known in recent years as Digital Rights Management) just stinks. At its best, it creates minor but real inconveniences for the people who pay for stuff; at its worst, it badly screws up their experiences with the products they buy. Let’s just say it–the world would be better off without it.

Most of the best arguments against copy protection aren’t so much arguments as case studies. Over and over, it’s caused both anticipated and unanticipated problems. Including ones for the companies who use it.

So let’s review the case against copy protection by looking at what it’s done for us over the past 25 years or so. Warning: Persons whose blood boils easily should read no further…

25. Lenslok. And all its spiritual descendants. Which are many and varied.

I managed somehow to avoid Lenslok back in its heyday in the mid-1980s, but just reading about it makes me gnash my teeth, It was an oddball prism-based gadget invented in the mid 1980s to copy-protect games on the Atari 400/800, Commodore 64, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, and other pioneering home computers. You held the Lenslok up to your PC’s display to read a secret code that let you unlock a game. But “[in] order for the Lenslok to work correctly the displayed image has to be the correct size,” says Wikipedia. “This meant that before each use the software needed to be calibrated to take account of the size of the display. Users found this setup particularly annoying, at least in part due to the poor instructions that were initially shipped. Additionally, the device could not be calibrated at all for very large and very small televisions, and some games shipped with mismatched Lensloks that prevented the code from being correctly descrambled.” Sound a little bit like what Microsoft might have come up with if it had attempted to invent Windows Activation and Windows Genuine Advantage twenty years before it did. [Image from SUMO.]

24. Lotus 1-2-3 and dBASE. Remember them?

Two of the most dominant software packages of the 1980s, they came from software publishers who apologetically championed the use of copy protection for years, even after the increasing use of hard drives made their schemes a major headache for customers who had paid hundreds of dollars for the software. Eventually, they were forced to ditch it, and in the long both were crushed by competitive applications that had never been locked up in the first place. Question for debate: Does copy protection tend to hurt the applications it “protects” in the long run–not only by annoying customers but also by leading companies to rest on their laurels rather than beat their brains out to earn every sale they make?

23. It’s patronizing.

Microsoft’s brief Windows Genuine Advantage FAQ, for instance, begins its answer to the question “What is the Windows Genuine Advantage program?” by declaring “Microsoft Genuine Advantage programs, including Windows Genuine Advantage, help you determine whether or not your copy of Windows is genuine.” True–but far from the whole truth. If that was WGA’s principal purpose, Microsoft would give you one heads up that your software appeared to be illegitimate–at your request–and would leave it at that. Instead, it requires you to validate your copy of Windows (sometimes repeatedly) and, if it thinks it’s pirated, takes steps to dissuade you from using it. (At least Windows Vista SP1 removes the “kill switch” that rendered copies of Windows that failed the WGA test unusable.) I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’d respect WGA more if Microsoft simply said something along the lines of “We spent vast amounts of money to build Windows, and WGA exists to prevent people from stealing it.”

22. It locks you in.

If you splurge on iTunes songs that are protected with Apple’s FairPlay DRM–which works almost exclusively with Apple products–it’s a major disincentive to buy digital music gear from other companies. If you plunk down money for tunes protected with Microsoft DRM, you can’t put them on an iPod unless you’re willing to burn them all to CD, then rerip them. Yes, Apple could license FairPlay to other companies and/or build an iPod that supported Microsoft’s flavor of copy protection. But when music isn’t locked up in the first place and uses standard formats like MP3 and AAC, you don’t have to worry about anyone supporting anyone else’s DRM–the music just plays.

21. Three words and one hollow claim: Plays For Sure.

That was the tagline for the music certification program Microsoft introduced in 2004, incorporating its Windows Media copy protection. The one that consumers had trouble with from the get-go. and the one that Microsoft began to abandon just two years later, when it shipped the first Zune players, which didn’t support Plays For Sure DRM. Today, many of Microsoft’s original Plays For Sure partners have dumped it, leaving consumers who invested in compatible devices twisting in the wind. And Microsoft says that Plays For Sure is now called Certified for Windows Vista. Except that its Zunes carry that certification and aren’t compatible with what used to be Plays For Sure DRM. Confused yet? I sure am.

20. TurboTax 2002.

In 2003, TurboTax added stress to tax time rather than reducing it, in the form of copy protection that Intuit said would be used on all future versions of the application. Its customers reported problems. Intuit initially responded by saying those folks were just misinformed and befuddled. Then it backpedaled, admitting that the copy protection was “the wrong thing to do” and ending it permanently. Oh, and the sales gains that the company thought would come once it was harder to pirate TurboTax? Intuit said that they were disappointing.

19. Forty-two.

That’s not just the ultimate answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything–it’s also the number of digits that you’ll need to enter into Microsoft’s Activation Wizard if you’re unfortunate enough to have to activate one of the company’s products via telephone. Consider each digit a tiny hoop that you must jump through to prove you’re not a software thief.

18. It’s a creator of unplanned obsolescence.

Millions of perfectly good computer monitors can’t play high-resolution Blu-Ray movies–not because of a shortage of pixels, but because they were manufactured before the advent of HDCP, the copy-protection standard, licensed by Intel, that’s designed to protect high-def content. HDCP defends high-def video in part by making it look worse on non-HDCP devices: On older displays, it knocks down the resolution and turns high def into standard def. In other words, Hollywood doesn’t just want you to buy copy-protected entertainment: It expects you to spend hundreds of dollars on new equipment that supports its copy-protection scheme.

Anti-Copy Protection Resources

Wanna read more bad stuff ’bout DRM and related matters? Check out these sites–which are, for the most part, more ferocious on the subject than I am.

Dan Bricklin’s Web Site

Digital Freedom
Electronic Frontier Foundation
The Free Software Foundation
Freedom to Tinker

17. It can be used as a cudgel.

Major labels use DRM to punish Apple–and therefore Apple customers–for iTunes’ success. They do it by letting Apple competitors such as Amazon sell DRM-free music, but requiring Apple to use DRM on the same tracks, apparently in hopes of putting a dent in the iTunes Store’s music-download dominance. Besides Apple, who gets hurt here? The millions of music fans who prefer to buy their music from Apple, of course.

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26 Comments For This Post

  1. John Says:

    These are not 25 arguments. This is merely a list of 25 points illustrating some of the horror stories in the DRM / copy protection history… They’re all a consequence of the major problem behind how technical protection measures have been approached assuming the users were criminals. This assumption is wrong and consequently the technical solutions for DRM have led to the current battlefield.
    So the true question is not how to ditch DRM and copy protection but rather how to approach the problem with the right assumption and consequently the right business model.
    Such an assumption postulates to put the user back where he belongs in the center of the model and to trust him (the criminals are not who the media industry thinks they are). In doing so, you can re-think DRM in a totally opposite way enhancing user experience (which to the best of my knowledge is a key success factor in this industry).
    Work has been done in this area but the media industry just doesn’t want to see it and is still on a witch hunt trying to preserve an industry that has changed so much.
    Glad to talk about it if you want…

  2. Patrick Says:

    Yes, the consumer is hurt by copy protection schemes. And yes, determined pirates are at most slowed down by copy protection schemes. But there are two solutions:
    1. Companies stop implementing copy protection;
    2. Pirates stop pirating.

    You’ve completely ignored solution #2.

  3. Curtis Carmack Says:


    Your argument makes one of the key points: if DRM does not stop pirates (and it most certainly does not), then why use it? Overall, its primary effect is to alienate and anger legitimate consumers.
    I don’t think it’s possible to completely stop pirates, but pretty much all the $$$ spent on DRM should instead be spent on ferreting out and prosecuting the pirates.

    Curt Carmack

  4. Glenn Fleishman Says:

    “In April of 2008, MSN gave up on trying to sell music wrapped in DRM and decided to shut down the servers tht made the copy protction function. It informed customers that they’d lose the ability to move songs they’d “paid” for to new decices. And only decided to refund their money after a consumer backlash.”

    I don’t believe they offered to refund money. (Also a typo: decices.) They agreed to continue running authorization servers indefinitely. I was unable to find any news story about MSN Music noting a refund.

  5. Tom Says:

    Patrick, surely even if your solution #2 comes to pass, that won’t help at all unless solution #1 does as well? Or in other words, #2 isn’t a solution: it’s simply a way to encourage the companies to do #1.

  6. Ryan Says:

    Anything built by man can be destroyed by man. Simple enough.

    Pirates are thieves, if you can’t stop thieves stealing tangible objects, what makes files any different?

    DRM does nothing but hurt the consumer, and the company.

  7. LKM Says:

    @Patrick: DRM isn’t here to stop piracy, as evidenced by the fact that it never has. Pirated copies of Spore were available before Spore was even on sale. The actual reason DRM exists is to prevent second-hand sales. Hence, even if all pirates stopped pirating (and why honest customers would be held accountable for piracy, as you seem to do, I do not understand), DRM would remain firmly in place.

  8. thomas downing Says:

    I’ve come to the conclusion that DRM (in most cases) is NOT
    about preventing illegal copying of copyrighted content.
    That makes no sense, not even to the non-technical, not at
    this date.

    DRM (in most cases) is about increasing revenue from legitimate
    retail consumers. Make them pay more than once. Want it on
    two devices? Pay twice. Want it more than N times? Pay again.
    Want access to the extra whizbang that’s already in there?
    Pay extra. Want to share it via home networking with you
    family? Pay a network fee. And so on….

  9. SAB Says:

    Your logic is bad;
    Copy protection exists
    Piracy exists
    Removal of Piracy does not mean Copy Protection will cease to exist, nor does it provide incentive to remove copy protection, if anything it would provide justification for all that has gone on before piracy ended; i.e. “See? Copy protection killed piracy”.
    Removal of copy protection does not mean piracy will kill the industry. If there is no mass-market music industry then there is no-one to pirate from. Shooting the golden goose is not an option.
    Enforcing the laws by prosecuting those who make money by stealing and reselling the works of others is where the focus should be. When you can walk into a plaza and buy pirated DVDs with poorly made paper labels that are simply scans of the original artwork, you have a real problem, one which copy protection fails to address, one which the law fails to prosecute with any meaningful punishment.

  10. Martin Says:

    I have to agree with other commentors on this…the purpose of DRM and the DMCA is not to stop piracy. It is to take away whatever fair use rights consumers have, and eventually) to force them to pay again evey single time they play a legitimatley purchased DVD, CD, or movie/music file, or use legitimatley purchased software.

    Also, if some of the above mentioned products were not (consumers feel) overpriced, some of the incentive to buy pirated copies would be gone. I realize that there are some who would never buy, but they cannot be counted as a lost sale.

  11. Xanaqui Says:


    I’m under-convinced. A lot of DRM does little against second-hand sales, although if you are correct, that would be a violation of the first sale doctrine, at least in most jurisdictions in the U.S.A..

    Frankly, my negative experiences with DRM have been the following:
    1) The inability to change a work for my personal use (it would be nice to actually be able to use certain alternate/extra scenes from movies in my copy of said movie).
    2) The inability to use a product at all (I’m recalling one particular game where it continually asked for a wheel code, and apparently I occasionally entered in the information incorrectly).
    3) The inability to use a product due to the loss of some information or an artifact (in one case, I ended up buying the product again – in the other cases, I just threw it out).

  12. Calipip4 Says:

    Most people have the whole idea of DRM’s like SecuRom and the X amount of activations all wrong.
    It’s not just a simple DRM, it installs separately to the game without your knowledge…if you un-install the game…it DOESN’T un-install the SecuRom, which makes it a rootkit (malware), so if you don’t know this, you will think it’s gone because it hides in “hidden folders” and in your “Registry”, not to mention disabling of some AV’s ,the damage it does to some PC hardware, and stops you from being able to use legal software that SecuRom has been programmed to black band. EA deserves to be sued over this issue alone.
    The other issue I have with this type of Draconian DRM is that when you can’t afford the internet anymore, you can no longer Play a Game you Paid for, and that is wrong…most games aren’t played over the Net so why do we have to be connected to it. ( It’s to Spy on PC users, that’s why it Phones Home with Encrypted Data.)
    There is a lot bigger picture than what we’re seeing here right now, this is only a baby step to the end plan. This has nothing to do with piracy, because we know that the pirates will never be stopped and it is proven once again with the amount of torrented copies of Spore downloaded so far in just one month. Why is EA adamant about continuing to use SecuRom when they know it’s not doing what they say it was intended for and is only affecting the paying customers? I will not buy anything that is put out by EA or Sony anymore, even though I would love to buy Sims2 IKEA, Sims2 Apartment Life, Spore, Red Alert 3 and many more, but I just don’t trust EA or Sony. All they have done for the last 18 months is lie through their teeth to save their neck and not a bit of concern for their paying customers.
    I’m a member at Reclaim Your Game: http://www.reclaimyourgame.com/ – and we’re dedicated to helping other gamers with their issues with SecuRom and get info out to educate the public.
    So please feel free to visit our site and see for yourself.

  13. Ronny Says:

    Most DRM is not there to prevent piracy. It is there to prevent *trivial* piracy, most notably the practice of copying something and giving it to a friend, as could be done fairly easily with audio tapes and CDs.

    While the knowledgeable can get around the DRM and make a copy anyway, for many people doing so is far more work than it’s worth.

    I loathe DRM primarily because it severely cripples my ability to make effective backups. If my DRMed computer crashes or my DRMed music player dies, the protected software/music on it may be lost forever.

  14. G Fernandes Says:

    [QUOTE]But there are two solutions:
    1. Companies stop implementing copy protection;
    2. Pirates stop pirating.[/QUOTE]

    The existence of piracy is a market-signal saying that the goods on sale are priced above a price that the market perceives as reasonable. There have been many a thesis by many an economist that more than adequately explains piracy AND slams the likes of copy-protection (this can be expanded to include patents, which are copy-protection on technology) as actually detrimental to innovation and better products at acceptable price-points.

  15. Adam Jones Says:

    There will be pirating, as long as college students are unable to afford media, they will use their spare time and ingenuity to violate copy protection, under the belief that their actions are a victimless crime; as long as two people can fall in live in this crazy world of ours, they will make mix tapes for each other; as long as kids hit puberty and have the urge to watch taboo content off the web; and as long as countries with poor IP protection have enormous markets for copies. Hence, there will always be pirating.

  16. CRG Says:

    As a general rule, honest people don’t like to be treated like thieves. So if you treat all of your customers like thieves, the honest ones will get sick of being treated that way and will stop being your customers.

    Thieves are used to being treated like thieves, so treating them that way won’t stop them at all.

  17. Nightwish Says:

    Not only does Spore’s DRM invalidate resells, you also lose access to your games in case your account at the EA forums gets banned.
    How nice.

  18. Sean Says:

    Consider one of the simpler forms of “copy protection” that’s actually “market protection”: DVD regions.

    I want to buy a perfectly legitimate copy of a $30 Japanese DVD. Oh, it won’t play in my player? That’s OK, a pirate will sell me a $5 copy.

    Unlike a lot of other arguments, in this case it’s the vendor who doesn’t get their fair share. The pirate gets paid, and the customer gets what he wanted. Sure, he doesn’t have the legitimate license to privately view the DVD, but who reads that crap anyway…

  19. Nighteye Says:

    25 arguments, and it’s still not complete. So I’ll add one:

    26: DRM can cause irreparable damage to customers’ PCs.
    As evidenced by Starforce, a DRM scheme that causes some DVD drives to stop functioning correctly. I still have a game I got packaged along with my video card that as of yet I haven’t been able to play. When I installed it (and it installed Starforce without my knowledge or consent), my DVD drive immediately started making weird noises and stopped recognising DVDs. Uninstalling the game and Starforce made no difference – the drive kept malfunctioning. I’ve had to replace the DVD drive, and now I’m not going to risk my new DVD drive by exposing it to Starforce.

    Thus, because of the DRM, my legitimately owned game is rendered effectively unplayable. I paid money for the game, I paid money to replace the DVD drive broken by the game’s DRM, and I still can’t play the game.

  20. frogger626 Says:

    I don’t like copy protection much myself- indeed, I am on a complete boycott of all sony products because of the rootkit disaster. Plus, they’ve been caught using pirated software themselves. I think DRM in music is pointless, but in games, it is necessary. Look at World of Goo- published with no copy protection, at all, zip, zero, nada. 90% piracy rate. Granted, those numbers are probably way bloated by their own admission, but still. There will be some people who won’t play- or at least, buy- games that have copy protection, but if they can make it so I can use my software that I paid for without undue stress, I can make due. I’m almost- alllllmost- to getting cracks for legit games I bought firsthand from the store. It’s pathetic, and it shouldn’t happen. Steam is good. It’s hard to break, and it’s easy to get used to, uninstall, whatever. Sony, look at Valve! Or better yet, stick all your stuff on Steam, instead. And SecuRom, on GTA4 on Steam? What the heck are they THINKING!

  21. Dave Says:

    Wait, did you just call Spore a “masterpiece” and a “landmark game”? Where did you get that idea from? It’s an awfully shallow game – it’s B-grade at best. It was just hyped by a marketing machine to be something it’s not. Did you say that, just because that’s what the company’s marketing said about the game?

    Also, you wrote:

    “The copy protection which EA defended but dialed back after the consumer revolt.”

    EA did not “dial back” copy protection. They just increased the allowed number of activations slightly. The copy protection is still in full force, and is in no way “dialed back”.

    Again, this reeks of the same uncritical swallowing of EA’s propaganda as the praise heaped on Spore above.

  22. avoidz Says:

    I had Lenslok on a Sinclair Spectrum game I bought back in the 1980s. I must have played it two or three times since I could never read the code on my TV screen. It made me so mad at the time.

    I still have the offending piece of plastic to remind me of the awfulness of copy protection.

  23. FredW Says:

    Media wants to be free or almost free. There are many things in the world that were scarce at one point in time. Where a small cartel controlled the market and the price. There was a demand for the product. There were those who were willing to steal to get the product, yes even governments. In every case, there was a market where someone realized that they could turn a profit if they offered the item at a fare price.

    Until it is offered at a fair price, piracy abounds. That is a fact of life. It does not matter if we are talking spices like nutmeg (the Dutch once owned all the islands where it grew) and other spices, to things unions control (like shirt buttons). History is full of cartels that have come to an as the price of the item adjusts to some value not out of proportion to the cost of its production.

    With the advent of the computer and the Internet, music, video and books all want to adjust to the cost of free or near free. You can call it piracy, you can make laws against it. In the long run, the markets adjust and people find business models to sell a product at a price where people are not willing to pirate it.

    For music, the price is somewhere less than a dollar a song. Apple is selling a lot at this price. There is still lots of piracy. The market demands at least one of three things. (Using Music as an example)

    The first, would be that even with a price of almost nothing. Such as mp3’s for 5 cents each. Those that produce them could make enough of a profit that it is worth there time to continue to create the product.

    The second, would be that with so much “content” out there, it would be worthwhile to pay some service that would be worthwhile to access the same content for almost free. Such some system where you pay a fee to be a member and they make recommendations about new music you might be interested in, and they pass some of the cash back to the content producer.

    The third, is that there is some other tangible product that can’t be replicated cheap, with good overhead that music would sell. Concert tickets to see a band, tee-shirts, autographed items. Someone listens to “free” music, discovers a band they like, and buy other things at a premium price, thus covering the cost of the item. Think of an MP3 the same way you think of junk mail. No one would pay for junk mail. Junk mailers send it out because it is cheep and promotes the sale of some product they make enough money off of to justify what it cost to do junk mailings.

    Right now, just because we have not figured out how to turn a good solid profit on reading material, video and audio that longs to sell for not much above what it costs to distribute. Does not mean that there is not a way to do it. It will be done at some point that is the way markets work. If you sell it for too much, there will be a market for someone who can provide it for you just above the cost of producing it.

  24. Austin Says:

    Copy protection is like gun-free zones and anti-gun laws. It doesn’t stop criminals from using them. They’re not worried about breaking another law! It just stops (or increases the difficulty) of people who could use it likes it’s meant to be used. (In this case, possibly protecting people from getting hurt because a law-abiding citizen used it to stop the criminal.) It doesn’t prevent pirates from cracking it (even if breaking more laws to do so), it just prevents the customer to be able to enjoy it as it was meant to be.

  25. ButtPyrite Says:

    Best way to kill DRM, fight back!

    ThePirateBay.com – simply put, never pay for digital anything, ever!

    The rest of you who don’t like it, can Suck. My. Rooster.

  26. B Says:

    Here’s my beef with copy protection: it’s not the creators that reap the benefits, it’s the distributors. All the money the RIAA got from suing people went to the RIAA, not a single cent for the artists who create it. These companies exercise the ‘rights’ over ideas they did not create.

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