(Digital) Locks are multipurpose tools, and can be used or abused

In “(Digital) Locks are multipurpose tools, and can be used or abused”, Rusell McOrmond makes the distinction between digital locks on content, such as mechanisms on audio CDs that prevent users from “ripping” songs to external devices, and digital locks on devices, which only allows devices to play certain types of content.  He argues that digital locks can be useful or harmful depending on the use to which they are put, stating that they are not in and of themselves “neither good nor bad.”

I would argue that in discussing the balancing of interests with respect to the effect of digital locks on copyright, manufacturers of devices that access and use copyrighted works and distributors of copyrighted works have become major stakeholders.  The role that manufacturers and distributors play in use of digital locks must be viewed alongside the interests of users and creators to understand the implications of using such locks.


Digital locks restrict users in many ways.  Locks on content take legal uses of works away from consumers, while locks on devices limit the choice of where users can get content from.  Consequently, users are also limited in their selection of content.


Digital locks can protect and harm creators.  Locks on content protect creators by preventing unauthorized duplication and distribution of their works.  However, as previously mentioned, locks on devices limit the choice of where users can get content from.  Users with a specific device may only be able to acquire compatible content from a certain distributor.  Consequently, the dissemination of a creator’s work can be limited by what a distributor makes available and what content a device can play.

Device Manufacturers and Content Distributors

Digital locks allow device manufacturers and content distributors to manipulate the market to their benefit.  Locks on devices, by providing compatibility with only certain forms of content, force users to make use of only those distributors who carry compatible content.  Together, manufacturers and distributors can create what is effectively a monopoly, leaving users with little to no choice as to where to acquire certain forms of content.


When manufacturers and distributors are included in the rights balancing scheme envisioned by the Copyright Act, it becomes clear that the use of digital locks do not achieve its stated purpose.  Users are the clear losers, as even legal uses of copyrighted material are taken away.  While creators achieve some degree of protection against unauthorized distribution and reproduction, they are at the mercy of content distributors, and to a lesser degree, device manufacturers.  The biggest beneficiaries of from using digital locks are device manufacturers and content distributors.  Under the guise of protecting creators’ right, they have acquired a means to increase their market share in devices and distribution of works.

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One Comment
  1. Device manufacturers do not benefit from DRM. They normally do not have any property interest in the DRM-laden IP. Apple hardly wants to cripple its own music player: iPod can play DRM-free tunes. Phillips does not want to handicap its products: it lets consumers disable region codes in its DVD players. The anti-copying features like Macrovision that VHS players do have are often statutorily mandated (DMCA).

    Admittedly, Apple’s iTunes software does not allow copying of protected files. Also, Apple could be interested in DRM if it believed it capable of reducing piracy and increasing sales in its music store. Yet both of these arguments are dubious: first, DRM compliance is mandated contractually and by statute, and, second, Steve Jobs, the Apple CEO, said last year that “[s]elling digital music DRM-free is the right step forward for the music industry”, after EMI offered its entire digital catalogue protection-free.

    The real beneficiaries of DRM are IP owners, and the biggest problem with DRM is the criminal nature of anti-circumvention laws. First, IP owners encumber content with DRM, which is so sweeping that it takes away legitimate uses like fair dealing. Next, US Congress passes DMCA that criminalizes DRM circumvention. Copyright laws protect our right to certain uses of other people’s IP. It is not so with other people’s houses. That’s why breaking into your neighbour’s home should be a criminal offence and circumventing a digital lock on your CD with Sony music on it should not.

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