A Tenuous Connection With Digital Rights Management

One topic of interest among a small group of academics and students is the emerging technology known as “Digital Rights Management” or DRM. As explained by Sean Captain in his New York Times article “So Much Music, So Few Choices,” DRM is “technology that protects copyrighted works by preventing unlimited duplication.” It’s a bit more nuanced that just preventing duplication but that’s an okay generalization. One of Captain’s key points is that “the many conflicting approaches to rights management can also limit choices.” He’s right. Most people encounter DRM for the first time when files won’t move, copy, display, or print as expected: copying DVDs, fast-forwarding through the FBI warning and previews, or moving music purchased online to another computer or player.

What does DRM have to do with student affairs? Alright, it’s a bit of a stretch. It’s definitely a topic that is usually limited to discussion among computer geeks and music industry executives. It is sometimes discussed amongst librarians and scholars as they wonder about how they will continue to access resources and scholarship that are increasingly hidden behind DRM, a discussion that not only revolves around access costs but also publisher lifespans and changes in technology. Luckily for them, new rules are being put into effect to alleviate some of those problems. But others still exist.

One strong connection with student affairs and higher education is the continuing discussion about students’ online copyright infringement and possible solutions. One “solution” pushed hard by the RIAA is the employment of legitimate online entertainment services like Napster, Cdigix, and Ruckus. Those services employ DRM; it’s how they’re able to convince the publishers to allow them to “sell” the music. And what does that mean for students who are in some cases forced to pay for these services whether they use them (or are able to use them) or not? It means they’re renting the music (which is not necessarily bad). It also means no fair use rights (which is necessarily bad).

Is that important to the students? For most of them, it’s not yet important. Many of those who take issue with DRM do so almost exclusively because the music won’t play on their particular mp3 player (see this USA Today article from earlier this year for a typical example). Rarely do students take the wider view (however, I suspect that this view may gain some traction if Jenkins’ Participation Divide ever begins to close as DRM does pose a large hurdle for many reuses of culture – remixes, mashups, etc.). And it’s hard to fault them. It’s partially an issue of maturity and experience, qualities traditional college students lack by definition. But it’s also an issue of education and that’s where many of us are failing. Our institutions will fight to protect the intellectual property “owned” by our institutions and our faculty will fight bitterly to protect their fair use rights in the classroom (even to the point of going too far and unethically ignoring copyright). But who fights for the students’ fair use rights? Who tells them that they even have those rights (certainly not the Boy Scouts and the MPAA)?

So that’s my weak tie-in with student affairs: legal rights and culture trampled and unmentioned by educators bullied into “doing something!” about students’ copyright infringement. That’s why I worry about NASPA’s recently-announced RIAA partnership. One could go further and accuse institutions of literally “selling out” but given that instititution have (a) paid money to employ many of these services and (b) acted primarily out of fear (of legislators, recording industry lawsuits, and bad public images) I don’t think that’s an accurate accusation to make. But there is certainly a discussion to be had about commercialism and its role in this debate as recording industry executives push the use of services that in turn pay the recording industry for the use of their music. There are legitimate ethical, moral, and legal issues but students aren’t the only ones who should be under the microscope.