Updated on 02.20.07

How DRM Directly Costs You Money And Time – And Why Every Consumer Should Care

Trent Hamm

The debate over digital rights management has been burning wildly in the past few years as large media companies attempt to find ways to distribute their content to users in this brave new world. Unfortunately, paranoia over protecting intellectual property has made an exciting new opportunity for spreading new music, film, and other media forms to a wider audience into a steady deluge of piracy battles and other nonsense that have directly hurt the consumer, whether they participate in improper use of the content or not. Even one of the largest purveyors of DRM media, Apple Computer, has wised up: in the words of their CEO, Steve Jobs: “The simplest answer is because DRMs haven’t worked, and may never work, to halt music piracy.”

Normally, I wouldn’t care about this too much. My years as a frequent buyer of music are in the past – today, I buy an album roughly every three months. I’m not a person who one would think would be affected too much by digital rights management issues, right?


In the past year, I have had multiple negative experiences related to digital rights management that have directly impacted my pocketbook in a negative fashion in multiple ways. Thanks to these approaches, it now costs me extra money to share my music collection with people in my immediate family, to move it from place to place, and to use it in multiple formats. Even worse: it costs me a lot of valuable time as well, time I could be using building The Simple Dollar or engaged in other worthwhile activities that could either fulfill my life or make me money.

foo-fighters.jpgWant an example from my own life of how DRM media creates hurdles to authorized reproductions – and also introduce security concerns? About a year ago, I picked up a copy of the Foo Fighters album In Your Honor on sale in CD format. I took it home and attempted to convert it to mp3 on my computer. What happened? Audio garbage. It turns out that this CD is “protected against unauthorized duplication.” Obviously, there is a way around it (just deactivate the SbcpHid item in the Windows device manager), but it cost me a significant amount of time to find this solution to the problem. This is the only CD I have ever purchased that caused such an effect.

It’s not only a major issue in terms of usability (I burnt a couple hours figuring out how exactly to do what I could easily and legally do with any other CD), it’s also a question of security. This SbcpHid driver introduces security issues onto my computer that I was completely unaware of and didn’t authorize, no different than a virus. Not only do I have to spend time figuring out the problem, I also may have made my computer less secure. Just to listen to one stupid CD.

Total cost of jumping through DRM hoops: Two hours @ $20 an hour = $40.

wincing-the-night-away.jpgWant another example? DRM forces additional waste of your own media to transport/store/back up DRM-enabled media. Recently, I used an iTunes Music Store gift card to download The Shins’ newest album Wincing The Night Away. I stored it on my local hard drive in my iTunes program. If we were not in an era of digital rights management, I could just copy those files directly to my wife’s laptop as well and she could enjoy the music in whatever way she saw fit. This was no problem in the not-too-recent past, when my wife could have just borrowed the CD or the record and done the same thing.

The problem is, my wife hates iTunes. She uses another program to listen to her music. Thus, in order to share music with my immediate family (something well within any reasonable definition of fair use), I had to burn a CD-R copy of the album and then convert it to mp3 on her computer. I could have also went online, found mp3s of the album, and downloaded those, but that would have been at least as much of a time suck as this process was, considering that your IP address could potentially be labeled as a pirate if you download to a shared folder inadvertently or something and you also have to check to verify that the mp3 is actually the music you intend it to be.

Total cost of jumping through DRM hoops: Twenty minutes at $20 an hour = $6.67, plus the cost of a CD-R equals roughly $7.

Let me put it this way: in order to share a CD I enjoy with my wife and to even rip a different CD onto my laptop, I burned through a CD-R and more than two hours of my valuable time. These are tasks that would have taken a minute or two before the media giants became obsessive.

I’m not even including indirect costs to the consumer, such as additional energy use to decode DRM-encoded material, the expense for developing DRM software (which is passed on to the consumer), and costs related to the expense of buying specific media players to play back DRM media.

The truth is that this issue affects all consumers, whether they are purchasers of media or not.

It comes down to a question of who actually owns a product that you pay good money for, because DRM isn’t just a technology, it’s a business philosophy that can be extended to any product.

As technology continues to grow, companies will have more and more power to place technological restrictions on the products you use every day. The power to end the usefulness of any electronic device is already here, and it’s a matter of time before packaging design and other elements do the same thing to any material, from appliances (a device set to stop working after a certain “leased” period of time) to packaged food (a time-release element that causes the food to become inedible) and so forth.

If this isn’t a future you want, you need to use your power as a consumer and boycott any and all products in which company policy restrict your usage. If a company is providing advice on how to use a product, that’s fine, but if a company tells you that you cannot use a product in a certain way and puts technology in the way of your usage, don’t buy the product.

I’ll say one thing for sure: I will never again buy anything sold by Sony, because battling their DRM policies on the Foo Fighters CD I paid good money for showed me clearly how little respect they have for me as a customer.

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  1. Karl says:

    I’m with you…I bought the same CD and returned it when I found out I couldn’t listen to it on my computer at work (I do a lot of writing and it helps having background music). Fortunately, I got it from a local record store instead of a chain, and they allowed me to exchange it for store credit. I got an older Cure album instead. Now on the increasingly rare occasions I do buy a new CD, I make it a point to go to that same store. But it’s getting harder and harder to justify getting new music at all these days.

  2. Rob says:

    DRM will become even more of a nuisance once everyone transitions to HD video formats like HD-DVD and Blu-ray. The DRM policy for these products stipulates that every component of your home entertainment system must support that particular form of DRM, from the player, to the TV, to your speakers, and the very cables you use to connect them all. What you have now isn’t – the components are just now coming to market. If any electrical variations are detected, the video is automatically degredated to non-HD quality – so you’d better buy a brand new surge protector or battery backup system as well. Want to watch it on your computer? Better spring for a new video card, monitor, cables, and possibly motherboard.

    In the past, DRM has been a nuisance. In the future, it is going to start to really hurt. I sense a consumer revolt. What the media conglomerates are too blind to see is that people prefer low-quality and free to hi-def and chained, anyway. Just look at YouTube.

  3. Nathania Johnson says:

    The Foo Fighters are my favorite band and I was so disappointed when the music was scrambled upon putting it in my computer’s cd drive. I heard the Foo wasn’t happy about this and even posted directions on how to circumvent the situation on their web site.

    But in the end, who wants the hassle?

  4. Vincent Maglione says:

    Hi Trent. I recently discovered this site and I’ve gotta say, it’s officially one of my very favorite blogs now. You write well, and the information is always invaluable.

    Anyway, you’re obviously familiar with open source software, so I’ll spare you the zealotry and just come out and say it: for ripping CDs (and DVDs, for that matter), Linux, for me, has been incredibly useful. I’ve been using it for a few years now and the free, open-source programs available to it are truly world-class nowadays.

    For instance: you mention Sony’s DRM. Last year, they released CDs that not only scrambled ripped audio, but actually installed a rootkit onto Windows PCs. Sony distributed one of my favorite artist’s recent CDs (My Morning Jacket’s Z), which I didn’t know when I bought it. This CD happened to have the rootkit. Took it home, popped it into my Ubuntu-operated computer, and had it ripped in five minutes. No rootkit, no scrambled audio, just high-quality OGG-Vorbis files awaiting my portable audio player quickly and easily (literally the press of two buttons). And this has been true of every CD I’ve purchased in recent history, regardless of distributor or label.

    Linux will cost you some time initially–the setup can be a beast, though Ubuntu eases most traditional desktop Linux woes–but monetarily, it’s absolutely free, as are most of the programs available to it. I keep a Windows partition (there are some Windows things I can’t lose, like Photoshop, Illustrator, and IE for site testing) but I don’t spend much time on it. Linux laptop support has grown immensely in recent years, so it might be worth your while to check into installing it for yourself. Free, easy to use, with next to no risk of viruses, spyware, or corporation-produced rootkits.

  5. Jeff says:

    I ran up against the iTunes idiocy this Christmas. I wanted to give my dad a CD of the old Christmas music we used to listen to when I was an toddler, interspersed with my own toddler daughter’s voice. The ONLY place I could find the songs I was looking for was iTunes (even bitTorrent sites let me down!). It took me an extra 40 minutes or more to burn those songs to a CD-R through iTunes, then rip them back off again with something else to get my MP3s, so I could use Nero to put together the program I wanted.

    I’m with you on boycotting companies that limit you like that. I never would have used iTunes if I did have any other options (and a gift card).

  6. samerwriter says:

    Another big problem with DRM — you can’t resell it.

    That means something as trivial as swapping music with a friend no longer works. (in college I used to swap CDs with friends).

    It also means you can’t sell your CDs to a used music store to pay the rent (hey, I did that in college too).

  7. Dagny says:

    When you hear DRM, in your mind attach the word “infection”. As stated in the article, avoid DRM infected products as you would a virus infected product.
    If you like DRM, you will love Vista as it has lots of DRM baked in for you!

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