No, it's not much in the grand scheme of things. But when we think about the cost of DRM to society at large, we need to remember the aggregate of these little things. And for parents trying to teach their kids to be creative with technology and education, these little annoyances mean a lot more than more abstract concepts like “the right to tinker.”
My son Aaron, age 9, has to do a “music project” for class. He does not play a musical instrument or sing all that well, but — with the the help of his tech savvy mother — can put together a very nice power point presentation. So he created a slide show about Aaron Copeland and the images brought to mind by the suite from Rodeo (the music that inspires everyone of my generation to go out and buy a hamburger). It's a cute little slide show. It uses a lot of clip art and animation of horses running through scenery in the Southwest, while Aaron explains that Copeland was actually a Jewish guy from Brooklyn. It does all those cute, whiz-bang things you see in Microsoft or Apple commercials when they want to use warm, fuzzy family imagery to show you how megacorps can improve our lives in so many ways.
Let me add at this point that we bought the music in question specifically for this purpose. We went online, found a reputable supplier that sold that particular suite of music (as opposed to the whole piece), and paid what was asked to download it onto our computer. It was not even ripped from a CD to an MP3. We did not rely on any argument that Aaron's school project was covered under the fair use doctrine. Nope. We paid what we were asked to pay and legally downloaded the file for the sole purpose of putting it in this power point project. Cesare's wife (or in this case, Cesare's wife and son) and all that. No accusations that we pirate music in THIS household.
When Aaron finished, my wife — being the IT support person she is and all too familiar with the problems that crop up during demos — wanted to test it on another computer. So she downloaded it on a memory stick and took it to work to make sure it would work for Aaron in school tomorrow. And a good thing she did. Because the DRM on the music would not allow the slideshow to run on a different machine.
No, there was never any warning when we bought the music. Never any warning when we manipulated it with the power point software. To all appearances it worked like it should. Finding out AFTER Aaron put all the work into it was not exactly a thrilling experience. Bluntly, the DRM shouldn't have been there at all. But if it was going to screw up the power point presentation, it should have triggered some sort of alert.
Our solution: Aaron will take his music in on an iPod with speakers and run the power point slide show. As I say, not a big deal in the scheme of things. Merely an annoyance and frustration.
But the cumulative cost of all these petty frustrations takes it toll on us collectively. Start with the problem of developing software that is supposed to make it easy for us to manipulate content and produce, only to have it screwed up by DRM. Continue to the problem of interesting kids in learning the kind of creative computer skills everyone says they need to succeed, only to have it made more frustrating, complicated, expensive and annoying than necessary. Keep going to the fact that I'm a lot less likely to buy music for these purposes because I simply cannot trust it to perform as expected.
If we as a society are paying a cumulative cost for DRM, we are entitled to ask what we get for it. From where I sit, not a heck of a lot. But Aaron — age 9 — has certainly learned a valuable lesson about paying for music online:
It's a rip off.
Somehow, I don't think that was the message the record labels wanted him to learn.