DRM and "innovation policy"

Tycho and Gabe over at the Penny Arcade had a guest write their blog posts for a week . The topic was Digital Rights Management in videogames. DRM is the technological scheme by which a company tries to encourage buying instead of “sharing” of games, songs or movies. The fact that these products are now very long strings of Zeros and Ones has a fun consequence that the plebs else can copy it faster and cheaper than the original producer can.

Effectively, the previous bottleneck upon which the toll booth sat, distribution, is no longer optimally positioned. Everyone is still trying to cope. To thwart the “hackerz,” and keep people coming through the booth, companies have DRM.  It takes any of a number of forms. They all keep track of their product to make sure that people who use it are actually paying for it. I talked about this a while back, too.

So, we have two incommensurable agendas: consumers want to pay less; producers want to recoup their costs. Also, they would like to turn a massive, monopolistic profit. Did you know that RIAA settled over a price-fixing lawsuit?. Where should the law come down? Should it support the good of the people (see Canada) or the “greater good” that comes into play in economics? There is a case to be made: if people can’t protect their investment, why invest? Without investment, we presume, creativity and innovation stall. Or so we are led to believe.

There is a parallel case in the sciences. Upstream of patent and IP law, ‘innovation policy’ comes to play. Where and when should the public’s dollar be spent on science and (by extension) other great human pursuits? A recent article went up about this question at nature.com. The question posed therein can be generalized. Science, art, literature all can be equally described by this statement:

“Research [and art, literature] occasionally generates radical changes that are unpredictable and often not associated with those pre-defined social goals. Nations invest in research for social purposes that are often thwarted by the nature of the research process itself.”

A society can invest, but it may not reap what it thinks it is sowing. The law of unintended consequences. DRM is similar: as people are thwarted in their attempts to access their legally purchased product, they turn to illegally acquired product. And so the software (and laws and business practices) designed to keep consumers buying turn them into thieves.