Why should musicians care about Digital Restrictions Management?

This is a guest post by Devin Ulibarri, a musician, music educator, and Free Software Foundation Member based in Boston, Massachusetts. The post was written for the 2016 International Day Against DRM.

Shortly after I discovered free software, I had to confront this question. As a musician, I had always been under the impression that Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) is something that musicians should advocate for. I believed this because I thought that DRM was designed to help artists be fairly compensated for their hard work. After all, with the global propaganda efforts such as "World Intellectual Property Day," which celebrated "Get up, stand up. For Music" last year, musicians come to feel that efforts to impose restrictions upon others are really done in their best interest. With statements from people such as Cary Sherman, the CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America telling the public that music is "a form of property that needs to be protected" for the sake of the musician who is trying to make a living, the public starts to believe that there is no other option to fairly compensate artists and that we must bow down to technological restrictions.

I still, of course, want musicians to be fairly compensated for their efforts. Music is incredibly valuable to society, and I believe that we should work towards a system where the monetary reward for making music more closely reflect its intrinsic value. However, I do not believe DRM is an ethical way of achieving this. In particular, DRM divides people by prohibiting sharing and restricts activities necessary for teaching music, preserving cultural heritage, and advancing the arts.

As a performing musician...

Sir Isaac Newton, in a letter to Robert Hooke, said "If I have seen further it is by standing on the sholders [sic] of Giants".

Great culture, like scientific advancement, thrives when ideas can flow freely from individual to individual and across national and cultural borders. Society advances to the extent that its people can access and study the body of thought that has come before. New ideas are built upon old ideas. Experiments are made by combining and remixing.

I discovered the free software movement because I was trying to document my own progress as an artist. I would collect recordings of rehearsals, practice sessions, and various musical ideas onto my iPhone. I wanted to listen to, move, and modify these recordings freely for the sake of my artistic progress. However, Apple has a system of various digital restrictions technologies that made these trivial tasks impossible after I upgraded the operating system on my iPhone. After the upgrade, iTunes would not "allow" me to move my audio files (despite having created those audio files myself). This caused me to ask a question of fundamental importance: "Why is software running on my computer telling me what I can and cannot do?"

I concluded that I needed to take control of my computing for the sake of my music, my business, and my work as an educator. I chose to switch to free software. And in so doing, I have rid my computing environment of imposed restrictions, such as DRM. Because I switched to free software and use a liberated Taurinus X200 laptop, I am now in control of my computing. This has become integral to my work as an artist and a teacher of the arts. I use a computer every day to record myself preparing for concerts, to send demo videos to my students, and to manage my business as an artist. I need freedom in my technology in order to get my job done. I do not have time, nor any desire, to fuss with artificial restrictions.

As a music teacher...

If you have ever worked with young children, you will know that they do not understand the concept of "restriction" very well at all. They do not like to hear that they "cannot" do something. Kids always seek to test the limits and justly so -- they have unlimited potential!1 "Restriction" is not something you are born understanding intuitively. Kids hear something they like and they imitate it. Once they can imitate something they like well, they share it with their friends (many clapping games have "gone viral" in playgrounds in this very way).

Furthermore, people learn through mimicking, sharing, and remixing. As a teacher, if I were to do something to hamper my students' potential, it would be clearly unethical. So, if I were to put DRM on my media -- media which my students would invariably want to listen to and learn from -- I would be doing something more obviously unethical. I would be creating an artificial barrier to my students' learning.

It is important to note here that there can be no distinction between "entertainment" and "education" in music and the arts. Corporations often try to have us believe that the two are separate and distinct, but this is just not true. Learning music is an entertaining activity, just as going to an artful and entertaining concert can be the inspiration for a new idea or piece of art. Furthermore, people need control over their media in order to unlock the media's powerful potential to be a learning tool.2

The US Constitution states that copyright's purpose is "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries." In order to protect this original intent, an additional provision was added to the law called "fair use." Fair Use (17 US Code § 107) exempts certain activities from the restrictions of copyright -- such as journalism, criticism, and education. This is a very good thing, as it promotes freedom of speech and allows ideas to be freely accessed and used in more cases than would otherwise be possible.

DRM makes some activities that would otherwise be permissible under fair use illegal in the US under section 1201 of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA). DRM restricts your actions, making your digital tools and information impotent, even if you need them to exercise your freedom of speech or of the press, or for education purposes. The DMCA is a law that enacts an international treaty written by the same people who fund the aforementioned World Intellectual Property Day. Other signatory countries have laws like the DMCA that enact similar rules.

What are musicians to do?

Musicians have more options today than ever for distributing copies of their work. This is a good thing -- it means that we do not need to go through a central authority in order to publish our work and have it be noticed. This gives artists the potential for more autonomy in their artistic decisions. We should choose publishers that do not try to control our artistic work by locking it up with DRM. As artists, we should insist on not falling for schemes which hamper others' freedom of information, because we know that we benefit from the same freedom in our own artistic endeavors.

When mentoring our students in music, we should only recommend distributions of audio/video, music, and educational materials that are not locked with DRM.3 We should educate other teachers on how DRM prevents legal copying of works for educational purposes, makes teaching and learning even more challenging, and how some DRM can infringe on the personal privacy of students, teachers, and artists as a whole.4

I now distribute a book that I created for beginners under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. Families and students are free to copy the book both for a profit or not for a profit. I have seen no loss in profit under this more permissive license. Once I am able to redo the entire method book using entirely free software tools, I plan rerelease it under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike to let students modify and share the source files that I use to print the book. This access, I hope, will benefit my students' learning -- they will become "future contributors" to a musical society rather than being "just students." There will be no DRM on any of the files I distribute. I predict that it will not affect my business model at all.

It is also important to note that, as I wrote this article, I asked my colleagues how much money they see from royalties (some of the colleagues are household name musicians) and they all said "nearly zero." If these important musicians are not receiving royalty checks for their publications and their audio works, I cannot imagine the elimination of DRM would hurt their profit model much at all.

We should enjoy the benefits of our global connectivity, not try to stop it. We should use our technology to build cultural bridges, not destroy them. We should focus on our art all the more. The world needs music more than ever. We can bring music to new audiences. Let's empower the world with music, and let nothing stand in our way. We can be profitable if we keep an open mind -- but surely, rewarding companies for creating designs to keep us apart while punishing our fans is not the way to become profitable ourselves.


1: I talk about human potential in the article "Thinking Beyond the Myths and Misconceptions of Talent." Unfortunately, when I published it, I agreed to let the publisher restrict access to it. I authored this at a time when I did not understand digital restrictions well. My next article for this publisher, which is in the works, has been negotiated in such a way that will not limit its distribution.

2: A simple example of this is copying sheet music in order to analyze the underlying musical concepts -- a common activity in a music class. The same can be done with audio as well -- a spectrum analysis of music in an unfamiliar tuning, for example.

3: The Mutopia Project is an excellent DRM-free resource for sheet music, and Defective by Design's DRM-free living guide includes many options for buying books, recorded music, and other media.

4: A document, unsurprisingly in a proprietary Microsoft format, published on the World Intellectual Property Organization Web site says "The goal, therefore is to develop -- to the extent possible -- flexible DRM applications that can apply different usage rules according to... the identity of the user."