Rant against the entertainment industries

If there was ever an industry which lived entirely in its own little world, it would be the entertainment industry. They are so involved in trying to get the very last penny they can from the consumer they have forgotten who they are trying to entertain – and that’s the last thing that they have done to me in the last few years.

If there’s one thing which gets me riled up its DRM (digital rights management) and copy protection. Yes artists have the right to protect their artistic property, but things are going too far. CDs which won’t play, install dangerous hacking tools and games which have copy protection so brutal there have been (unconfirmed) reports of physical damage to machines. The worst thing is, did the piracy stop? No. Copy protection JUST DOES NOT WORK.

After months of a subscription to Napster I have decided enough is enough. At the point where I couldn’t actually listen to any of the music I had downloaded or could I download new tracks, I decided the scam had already gotten too much of my money.

Napster has been getting on my nerves for some time now, but I could still listen to my music so I stuck with it. Their terms and conditions are fair, play the songs on 3 PCs and 2 MP3 players – that’s fine, I only use 3 PCs and 1 MP3 player anyway. Their methods of enforcement however are not. If DRM actually worked, I wouldn’t mind putting up with its inconvenience to some extent, but it does not. Something as simple as a driver upgrade upset Napster sufficiently that I could no longer play my tracks – a driver upgrade does not count as a new PC, nor should reinstalling Windows in fact.

To make matters worse, Napster has started to withdraw some tracks without warning or explanation – be it at the request of the artists or publisher I know not. I have heard complaints by some Napster users of tracks that they have BOUGHT being withdrawn and that they can no longer be played. If you buy a car from a dealer, would it be acceptable for them to come to your house and take it while you sleep just because they don’t want you to have it any more? No.

I don’t mind subscriptions. I pay for digital content all the time, I have even gone as far as paying for news subscriptions (www.gamespot.com). I even pay to access it all via my ISP. Information sells and it still does. I quite like the idea of paying a subscription for ‘unlimited music’, I never listen to the same artists for very long so not having to pay to hear an artist until I get bored is a plus. Add this to the fact that I hate CDs (I’ll explain later) with a passion, and you have a very good reason to subscribe to Napster.

The idea of DRM is in itself fundamentally flawed. I really do wish the big fat cats will get it into their heads that if you can watch/hear it, you can copy it. I repeat, if you can watch/hear it, you can copy it. No buts, no maybes about it. Tools to get around DRM have been around for years, like the original DeCSS tool created by some poor kid who got arrested just because he wanted to watch DVDs on Linux (in my opinion fair use). Now there are totally legal tools around which let you play and record music and videos through your PC to strip them of their DRM status. In short, DRM doesn’t work.

So, why do I hate CDs so much? I find them annoying. They are small, easy to lose, leave places, scratch, and you have to change them frequently. In my entire life I think I’ve owned less than 10 music CDs. They only hold about an hour of music, and they dictate the order and quality of the music you play. With the few CDs I do have, the very first thing I do is to convert them to MP3 format so I can arrange the tracks how I want and mix them in with whatever other tracks I want to listen to. I don’t even own a normal CD player, only the one in my PC.

I am particularly fond of an artist called Ludovico Einaudi but unfortunately a lot of his music is a recording of a live concert. This would be fine apart from the fact that they left the clapping in on the tracks, which is significantly louder than the rest of the music and over 30s long – it just means I have to get up and skip it. With a CD, I have no option but to get up and skip it, and then get up again to change the CD. The miracle that is MP3s would let me simply edit the track and remove this clapping, and let me make a playlist long enough to mean I don’t have to get up or stop what I’m doing. However DRMed tracks do not work like that. If I don’t want to listen to the clapping, I have to skip it again. Why has technology recessed rather than progressed?

Moving onto games now, the games industry at least partially understands the situation now. Copy protection very rarely works and very often annoys. For example, I go to many LAN parties, and despite the fact that I have plenty of hard disk space, I still have to lug an entire CD wallet full of games around with me to every event. Each game requires me to put a CD in the drive; some often require me to change CDs mid game. In the day and age where hard disks are getting larger, why should I need to carry so many CDs around with me? Oh yeah, did I mention I hate CDs? I still view CDs and DVDs as a method of getting data to the consumer, not as a form of copy protection which they seem to have become.

The copy protection system ‘StarForce’ is probably the best copy protection around at the moment. By best I mean it works unless you have a really determined hacker. I’ve got no idea how it works under the hood, but there seem to have been few instances of people successfully copying a game using it. Kudos to the Russian hackers (I think) who engineered it, shame it alienates the Linux users who would ordinarily be able to play the game using Wine/Cedega. I’ve also heard from a few friends who have had issues playing games protected with this under Windows too. Unfortunately, like all copy protection methods, one day it will fail entirely and will join the pile of useless copy protections methods which simply serve the purpose to annoy the consumer. All other copy system methods seem to have failed miserably from the offset, and in some cases, disastrously. I found it highly amusing when there was a copy of Doom 3 available, with a crack, available before the official UK launch date. Proof that copy protection DOES NOT WORK. So, did the existence of this illegal copy on the net (before I could actually buy it) stop me from buying the game? No. I bought it. And did it suck? Oh yes. The only thing that copy protection does is annoy. The pirates still copy the games, and the consumers are still bugged by the ‘Please insert CD’ message every time they launch a game. In some cases, the anti-piracy techniques uses are over zealous and when I attempted to patch (using the official update tool in game) my copy of Star Wars: Empire at War, it informed me that my CD was no longer in the drive. To play the game again I had to uninstall the game completely and just not patch it, why when I have legitimately bought the game must I be treated like a pirate and have official patches break the game.

CD keys are yet another stupid idea; especially given all CD keys work with all CDs. I sometimes wonder who came up with the idea. It would be like shipping a safe full of money with the combination written next to the lock. It’s quite simply retarded.

The only implementation of a delivery system which works well and is (mostly) copy proof is Steam. The games are delivered electronically and can be downloaded online without the mess of CDs or CD keys. Its copy proof because the games can only be played by logging in through an account (which is an annoyance if you happen to be at a LAN with no internet connection, but it’s still significantly better than CDs). I guess the only true copy protection system is the MMO, games where you have to pay to get access to server based game content. The consumer can copy the client all they want, but without a login on the server, it’s no use.

Another annoyance of the industry and one which gets on all consumers nerves outside the US is release dates. The industry heads were whining that piracy was at an all time high, illustrating how many copies of Doom 3 had been downloaded using BitTorrent before release. The wondering is how many of those people that downloaded the game in advance were in fact just eager fans wanting to try the game a few days early. I wonder how many of those people then went out and bought the game despite having already played it. Why companies insist on different release dates is beyond me. It just gets people in the countries with later release dates annoyed. Annoyed enough to drive normally innocent consumers to piracy? I’ve seen games that ship a whole 6 months later in Europe than in the states. That’s appalling. It’s the same with TV series. If you hear a friend telling you how great X TV show is yet you can’t actually watch it for another year, I’m pretty sure you might feel cheeky enough to go and torrent the episodes and watch them at your PC.

One thing that the industry must learn is that however many people they throw at the problem of copy protection, there are many times more people smarter and more able than them working at exactly the opposite, and often enough these people are doing it just for fun or because ‘they can’. The collective mind of the consumer is always, and will always be smarter than the aging few trying to restrict people’s rights.

Most consumers are good people at heart, and are willing to pay for content if it’s available at the right price. But the entertainment industry is increasingly pushing the consumer to their limits. Raising prices, restrictive DRM technology, and ludicrously long waits between world-wide release dates (this is especially important with the advent of the Internet). I then find it highly ironic when rather than milking the consumer dry, they then make them wait to buy the over priced DVDs of movies that just went off the cinema.

The cinema is yet another instance of an outdated technology. The cinema does have some things going for it though – big screen and real surround sound – but some homes now have kit to rival that of a small cinema. I still don’t see the attraction of watching a movie surrounded by coughing people who keep nipping to the loo, screaming children who won’t shut up, and the guy in front playing with his mobile phone. Oh, and don’t forget the chance to win a free cold or flu dose too! I really don’t understand why people have the tendency to take their girlfriends to the movies on a first date – to be honest I can’t think of anything worse to do. Surely if you have just met someone you want to get to know them a little better and talk – which is exactly what you can’t do in the cinema.

The music industry is still blaming piracy for its falls in CD sales – this is of course sales of Singles. The concept of a Single is such an outdated idea. Who wants to pay 2-3 quid for a CD with a single song on it? It’s just totally bizarre that anyone would want to in this day and age. So yes, sales of singles went down when things like the original Napster and Kazaa took off, but in case the executives didn’t notice, their sales of albums actually went up. People like to try things before they buy. I would never buy something on a name alone, just because it says ‘Bryan Adams’ on it doesn’t mean I’ll like it, and I won’t buy it on the off chance that I will. So, people go to download a track, realise they do like it and go off and buy the album. Fewer and fewer people are listening to the radio and fewer and fewer people have the chance to hear an artist first hand without actively scouting for it first.

Not so long ago I heard about an artist called ‘Perry Rose’, a not very well known singer that I would normally have overlooked. However, because I had the chance to sample some of his music on his website I decided to put in the effort to import 2 of his CDs (yes I bought a CD) from France to give as a present to a friend. I would not have bought the CDs, no matter how easy they were to get, or how much they cost, without being able to sample it first. And in many ways this points to the bizarre set of circumstances when piracy sells.

The current set of affairs with DRM is frustrating, but a look into the future of entertainment and rights management is quite simply scary. Microsoft Windows Vista has technology in it that prevents media being played if its origins cannot be traced. A friend recently tried to play a DVD in the latest Vista beta only to be told he could not because he didn’t have the right to. To play some media you will require both secure hardware and software. You will even need to buy a new monitor for your PC to play some digital media so that the path from the file to your senses is ‘secure’. As I said earlier, if you can watch it, you can copy it. If the industry is allowed to get away with this kind of enforcement, I wonder what the next stage will be. A black suited man standing behind you while you watch TV? (See Family guy episode 5e4 where the Griffin family get censored) Another worrying example on the horizon is blue ray. Rumour has it that upcoming players will report back which disks are being watched, and if an unauthorized disk is played, the player may forcibly cause the device to break itself. A worrying thought if you put a scratched disk in and it breaks your player you just spent a few hundred quid on.

Quite simply I find it horrific how the entertainment industry is treating its customers. Rather than treating its customers like criminals, perhaps it should actually start entertaining us with fresh new content and prices we are actually willing to pay. Yet another reason why people are buying less and less material in the stores is that the quality of material available is significantly less than it was. Now its just a few ‘samey’ manufactured artists doing covers of old classics, or yet another generic action film. There is very rarely any new material which makes me go ‘wow’.
The industry keeps complaining that the artists won’t work for so little money and that without protecting their investment they cannot pay the artists. This is a load of crap. Out of the cost of a CD the artist only makes a tiny fraction. A diagram from CNN shows that out of a £12 CD only about £1.50 actually goes to the artist. If we cut out the record labels, shops and other middle-men we could easily get CDs for half the price and give artists many times what they earn at present by using online distribution. The current system is bloated, slow and extremely inefficient.

Unfortunately the people in charge of running the entertainment empires do not understand how the real world works, how people think and especially not how to entertain them. The industry is a real joke, but I’m not laughing.

The following are a list of improvements which could be made to the entertainment industry (but which never will) to improve things for the consumer and the artist.

* Simultaneous release of games, TV series, films and music around the globe
* Films and music available for purchase online without DRM at a sensible price (£5 for an album if most of that goes to the artist seems fair) using systems similar to that iTunes currently uses.
* Games to be released for a maximum of £25 on all platforms without copy protection or CD keys.
* Music CDs and DVDs released without copy protection and their digital download versions included on the media to save those who want to archive their media the trouble of doing it themselves. To help with distribution costs, the physical versions of these disks should not be more than £3 more than their digital downloadable cousin (about how much it costs to ship and press a CD).

With the money saved on trying to restrict the content we do get, maybe the industries should start thinking up new ways to get us to part with our cash: full 3D cinema, fully immersive video games, interactive movies etc.

So, with lower quality content and more restrictions, the entertainment industries have a long way to go until they learn how to treat their customers well, and until they learn, we consumers will have a rough ride ahead of us. Let’s hope they learn before we get to see the live action version of 1984.

In summary, the current methods the industries have been using to enforce its intellectual property are just not working, and never will work. No matter how much money they throw at the problem they will be outsmarted and outdone by some smart hacker somewhere. It only takes one person to undo millions of dollars of research. It’s just not worth it. Instead, maybe they should invest in new ways to entertain us, pay the artists more and perhaps streamline their business models a bit so the consumer pays less on ‘overheads’.

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