I’ve been having conversations today about a ‘non-DRM solution’ to filesharing. This conversation comes up pretty regularly, actually. I’ve now been approached by no less than three companies that would like me to examine, and perhaps endorse their own system.

Each time, it involves watermarking files. The idea is that it is completely invisible (and inaudible) to the listener, but tracks where the mp3 (or some new proprietary audio file) comes from, and in most cases, information about the person who originally bought it.

I’m sorry, but no. That’s not a DRM-free system of anything. That’s Digital Rights Management by definition – only this time it uses surveillance, rather than the more clumsy and obvious ‘reach in and break your computer’ tactic of older TPM (technical protection measure) systems.

It’s just as bad. Probably much worse.

The ‘file sharing is bad’ myth
But before I explain, I should say there’s a questionable presupposition behind the technology: that file sharing is a problem that has to be solved.

I’m not suggesting that there’s been no financial loss to legitimate businesses and even some artists in part, through the use of the technology. To claim otherwise would be naive or ingenuous.

It’s just not the terror that it’s been painted as, by any stretch of the imagination (we’ve had this conversation – and at some length), but it is a factor that needs to be considered when planning your commercial strategy.

However, I’d bet money on the idea that far more artists and record labels have been advantaged by file sharing than have been disadvantaged.

So – rather than ‘how do we solve (ie: either eradicate or earn money from) file-sharing?’ – far more sensible would be to ask: ‘Given file-sharing as part of the reality in which I plan to operate, what should my strategy be?’

The key issues
When you propose watermarking music files as a way of ensuring that rightsholders get paid appropriately for their works, you raise a number of important issues.

* Who gets the information?
* Who pays for the re-encoding?
* What happens to the billions of un-watermarked files circulating?
* What bureaucracy needs to be formed to administer this?
* Will the same checks and balances still be in place 20 years from now?

And so on.

I’m all for artists and labels making money. But ultimately, replacing incompatibility with surveillance is just another way of trying to extend and reinforce a status quo that needs to be radically transformed – not policed and protected.

So – please stop asking me if I’ll lend support to your ‘dream of a DRM-free system that ensures that rightsholders get rewarded while honest people can do what they want to with their music’.

I applaud what I assume are your good intentions – but what you’re proposing is at best wrong-headed and entirely impractical – and, at worst, outright sinister.