DRM in Consumer Products? Bad Idea for Consumers


I just saw today where Green Mountain decided to include DRM in its next line of Keurig single cup brewers. I am sure they are going to sell it as a protection for consumers against knock-off cups, but the reality is this is a move to protect the company from losing part of the licensing money stream and not a protective measure for consumers.  And they are not the only ones.

Keurig


Image from SlashGear, where I saw the announcement.

Here is how I envision this working. Each K-cup will have a cheap chip, like an RFID with an encrypted code on it. More than likely, to make sure future licensees cups work in all single cup makers, the encrypted key code will be numeric when the encrypted value is correct and the brewer will refuse to brew one that fits either category below:

  1. No chip
  2. Chip that does not decrypt to correct types of values

The brilliance of this, from a business standpoint, is anyone who breaks the encryption to use their machine with non-licensed cups is guilty of committing a crime under different DRM laws (brewing a cup of unlicensed coffee may even mean you are guilty of a felony under some versions of DRM laws). And, anyone who breaks the encryption to make unlicensed cups work is guilty of a DRM violation allowing the government to shut them down.

In short: You will only drink more expensive licensed coffee.

With the prevalence of other single cup brewers on the market, I hope this one causes enough consumer backlash to get them to turn around on this bad idea. It is not in the best interest of consumers to have a machine that only allows coffee cups that benefit Green Mountain in some way. You, as a consumer, should have the choice to brew what you want. And if you pick “inferior” coffee, so be it.

I own a Keurig. I only buy licensed cups, or I use the licensed basket ($19.99 ouch!) to brew the ground coffee I want to brew. But if my brewer breaks down and I have a choice of a DRMed Keurig 2.0 or a competitor, I am going to go for the competitor. End of story.

Renault

Renault has taken this even further with their electronic car Zoe.

From Boing Boing article “Renault creates a brickable car”.

If you buy a new Zoe, you can only rent the battery. If you miss a payment, they can make it so your vehicle is a brick until you pay. The problem is hackers could potentially get into this system and cause serious problems, as well. I am not sure if the battery is DRMed to the point you cannot buy an unlicensed competitor’s battery (most likely there is a patent on the system now that protects them so it is unnecessary), but Renault, like Keurig, has created a product that protects their revenue stream.

DRM: How it works

How do these types of products protect the company? Certainly the consumer can do what he wants with the merchandise he pays for, right?

Yes … and no. Under SRM laws, if protections are added to a system, like encryption, breaking the encryption scheme is against the law. As an example, copyright fair use laws allow you to make personal copies of copyrighted material you purchase. For example, you can photocopy a book you own, or make copies of your CD collection.

But, while you can legally copy things like DVDs under copyright law, DRM law makes it illegal to break copy protection schemes to make copies. Any software created in the US that breaks copy protection schemes is illegal. In the late 90s, entertainment companies came up with a scheme called CSS to protect DVDs. In 1999, however, a program called DeCSS was created to decrypt the copy protection on DVDs. The stated purpose of DeCSS was to get DVDs to play on Linux machines, but it was also used by pirates to decrypt and make pirated copies.

Under DRM laws in various countries, coding a program that breaks encryption on materials like DVDs is illegal, so the one of the programmers, Jon Lech Johansen, was arrested in Norway for helping create the program. The scary thing here is this type of law has been used to stop a great many software advances by making a practice that can be used for very beneficial purposes illegal.

If this were the extent of where DRM has gone, it would be scary enough. But the laws go farther. If you use a product to copy a DVD, even for your own collection (copy a kid’s DVD for example, so they do not destroy the original), you have broken the law. And, under some DRM laws you can even be arrested and charged with a felony. Imagine that, it is just as serious to make a copy of a kid’s movie as shooting someone and killing them.

Unintended Consequences of Government?

The stated purpose of DRM laws was to protect artists and other copyright holders from pirates. But they ended up protecting media giants more than the actual artists, who continue to get a much smaller portion of the profits than the giants.

Despite the intent, if you place the proper code in any device, you can protect it from being reverse engineered or “decrypted” (actual decryption or otherwise) under a great many DRM laws.

What this means is you now may buy a product but leave control over how it is used in the hands of the manufacturer.

There Should Be a Law, Right?

I am not sure one bad law to combat a worse law is the proper reaction. Instead, I think people should inform there friends and blog readers, etc, about the potential dangers of DRM in products and get more people to vote with their wallets.

In the case of Zoe, the sales of the car were about 10,000 in 2013, around 1/5th of their target of 50,000 in sales. I am not sure if the DRM battery caused this, was a contributing factor, or merely something people like me are concerned about. If DRM contributed to the slow sales then I think the market has spoken saying “you don’t own the car, I do”.

In the case of Green Mountain, I am not sure what will happen. The market may be wowed by the newer features and accept the extra payment to Green Mountain for every cup of coffee, simply for brewing it in a Green Mountain Keurig machine. In other words, the inconvenience of only being able to brew more expensive, licensed coffee may be secondary to brewing a larger cup (or other planned enhancements). If I were a competitor, I would use this as an opportunity to gain market share, as I am sure some people will be appalled by the anti-competitive measure and spank Green Mountain for taking control of what they can brew.

Summary

I think DRM is necessary in some instances, like protecting internal documents that are private property of a company. When it moves out into the public, and restricts consumer choice to create additional profits for corporations, I am not in support of the idea. I do, however, think the market should decide if the intrusion is warranted. If any law is passed it should be one to inform the consumer the DRM exists in the product.

Peace and Grace,
Greg

Twitter: @gbworld

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