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Readers Continue the DRM Debate

I've received some interesting comments in response to my column Thursday about the role of "digital rights management" software, which I'd like to share.

One reader wrote that the column glossed over one of the basic assumptions of the pro-DRM argument: That file-sharing translates into lost sales. As this reader noted, a study just published in the University of Chicago's Journal of Political Economy found that was not the case. In it, economists Felix Oberholzer-Gee and Koleman Strumpf concluded:

Downloads have an effect on sales that is statistically indistinguishable from zero. Our estimates are inconsistent with claims that file sharing is the primary reason for the decline in music sales during our study period.

One fellow seized on the irony of companies complaining about side-effects of the digital technology that they already championed: "The recording studios went digital all by themselves to cut production costs. Noone put a gun to anyone's head and ordered them to release CD's. They liked the idea of being able to easily copy the music to media without expensive equipment and edit or extract parts of it for re-use."

Other people wanted to explore the ethical angles of file sharing.

A professional ethicist (yes, these are my readers!) wondered if my analysis of file-sharing behavior might not be read as saying that "anyone who plays by the rules because it's the ethical thing to do is lazy, stupid or ignorant." I told him that wasn't my intent at all. I assume that most people are honest; if they weren't, no amount of technological wizardry could prop up the record industry.

Another reader wrote that I shouldn't call it "sharing" at all: "What is and has been going on in the music business is copying. And since the music's only been paid for once it's really stealing." My reply: The people making music available over peer-to-peer systems are "sharing" them -- no copy gets made until somebody else downloads the file. As for the stealing angle: Yes, keeping a download without paying for it is stealing. But, let me play devil's advocate for a second, what if you either delete the file after a listen or two or buy the song or the entire album it came from? (There are CDs in my collection for that reason alone.) The economic effect -- the profit or loss to the creator -- is the same as if somebody loaned me a CD that he'd already copied to his computer, something few reasonable people would quibble with.

Finally, a few people were confused by my mention of copying iTunes purchases to somebody else's iPod. They asked: What about the "Sync and Erase" prompt iTunes pops up when you plug in a strange iPod? There's no real trick here: Click the "Cancel" button (the default selection in this prompt) and you can then drag and drop individual songs, TV shows or movies to the "alien" iPod.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  February 16, 2007; 11:39 AM ET
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