Should “Locked” Digital Content Be Labeled So You Know What You’re Buying?

Image courtesy of Joel Zimmer

Have you ever “purchased” an ebook, mp3, or video only to found you can only access it on a certain number or type of devices, or that it must be played through a specific player, or only accessed when you’re connected to the internet? Maybe that’s the sort of thing you’d like to know before you paid for this content.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation — along with a coalition of publishers, consumer advocates, and other interested parties — have written to the Federal Trade Commission asking it to require that “locked” digital content be labeled accordingly.

Pointing to the digital rights management (DRM) restrictions placed on content bought from Amazon, Google, Apple, and elsewhere, the letter [PDF] argues that the “confusing spectrum of restrictions” placed on digital content prevents shoppers from making an informed choice about what they are buying.

The issue of DRM and copyright protection is divisive in the media community. On one end of the spectrum is the argument that DRM is necessary to protect content creators by preventing rampant, illegal duplication and distribution. If you can make infinite, pristine copies of the same file and share them globally in a matter of seconds, what’s to stop you?

At the other end are those who contend that DRM is anti-consumer and anti-competitive, inextricably tying the buyer to the seller of the content. Can you imagine buying a paperback book at Barnes & Noble and then being told when, where, and how you can read it? Or buying a movie at West Coast Video (RIP) only to have a West Coast staffer come to your house a few months later and snatch it off your shelves because the store’s license to sell that video lapsed?

“The use of DRM is controversial among creators; studios, publishers and labels; and audiences,” acknowledges EFF’s Cory Doctorow in the letter. “What should not be controversial is that a purchaser should be able to tell whether she is buying a DRM-encumbered product before she spends her money.”

The letter accuses the companies that use DRM of wanting to have things both ways — pointing to the fact that consumers are buying locked content as evidence that DRM is acceptable to consumers, while simultaneously claiming that a DRM label would hurt sales.

“If, on the other hand, some customers are unaware of DRM at the point of purchase, they are being mis-sold a product that comes with unexpected, unpredictable restrictions,” writes Doctorow.

The groups signing on to the letter aren’t asking for some huge sticker or burst — or even that shoppers would have to acknowledge they are purchasing DRM-locked content. Instead, it could be as simple as adding a category to the details listed for a piece of content.

The letter gives this side-by-side example of how a book would be listed on Amazon:

If there were DRM on that title, it would read “DRM Restricted” with a link to more details about those restrictions.

“Without DRM labeling, it’s nearly impossible to figure out which products have digital locks and what restrictions these locks impose,” explains Doctorow in an emailed statement. “Customers have a right to know about these restrictions before they part with their money, not after.”