DRM: The Fight Against Posterity

Check out this article on Ars Technica about law prof. Patricia Akester’s study examining the effects of DRM on the legal use of copyrighted works. As you’re reading it, bear in mind that due to laws similar to the DMCA all over the world, it is often illegal to bypass DRM encryption, even if copyright law allows you to make a copy.

Why is this important?

In a storage locker in Halifax, there is a small box which theoretically contains copies of every essay I wrote in high school. These essays are stored on a stack of floppy disks. I’ll probably never read them again. For this to be otherwise, a lot of things would need to come true.

  1. I figure out which Mac OS I was running (System 6?). 
  2. I find a copy of the OS and get it running either on old hardware (which I also find) or virtualized. 
  3. I find a compatible floppy drive. 
  4. I find a compatible copy of the word processor (WriteNow).
  5. The disks have dramatically exceeded their estimated 2‑year lifespan.

In contrast, consider my University essays, all of which I can still open and read. This is possible because I have been transferring the files from computer to computer over the past 12 years. There is an unbroken chain of digital pack-ratting from the MacBook I’m using now to the Pentium 166 I built in 1997.

The loss of my essays (grades 10–12) are not a big loss to society. But it serves to illustrate a problem that plagues archivists. Digital content is very easy to copy in the short term but degrades very quickly in the medium and long term. To keep digital content alive, you have to keep it moving. Kevin Kelly calls this Movage.

Anything you want moved to the future has to be given attention to keep it moving forward.

In order to preserve content against the decay of laughably short-lived media and compatibilty, archivists need to make copies — early and often. We’re not used to thinking of it that way. We’re used to thinking of preservation as a kind of stasis. We think of climate controlled rooms and white gloves and sealed vaults.

In digital, stasis is death. Stasis is the BBC’s endangered Domesday Project, trapped on laserdiscs, needing hardware that had nearly disappeared in 2002 (interestingly, they knew this was coming but the archivists failed to keep the data alive).

It is bad enough for librarians, what with the fires, earthquakes, moisture, theft, time, and other disasters eating away at the content they seek to preserve. Copyright holders have made it all the worse, by preventing the one thing going for digital — easy, short-term, perfect copies — from happening in a legal setting.

DRM schemes make it illegal for archivists to do their jobs.