It's a well-known story by now: Europe, the US, and plenty of other countries have made it generally illegal to circumvent DRM, even when users want to do something legal with the content. Sure, it sounds bad and Ars complains about it all the time, but come on—do anticircumvention laws really prevent real people in the real world from doing real things with their content? Or are the complaints largely dreamed up by copyleft activists who would like nothing more than to see the term "intellectual property" disappear into the tentacled maw of Cthulhu?
According to the first empirical study of its kind in the UK, by Cambridge law professor Patricia Akester, it's the former. DRM is so rage-inducing, even to ordinary, legal users of content, that it can even drive the blind to download illegal electronic Bibles.
Problems, problems everywhere
Akester's new paper, "Technological accommodation of conflicts between freedom of expression and DRM: the first empirical assessment," does pretty much what its title implies. Akester spent the last few years interviewing dozens of lecturers, end users, government officials, rightsholders, and DRM developers to find how DRM and anticircumvention laws affected actual use.
Problems were not hard to find. When Akester spoke with the UK's Royal National Institute of Blind People, Head of Accessibility Richard Orme told her that those with sight problem have the right "to create accessible copies of works" by using screen reading software, for instance, but these rights can be blocked be restrictive e-book DRM.
Analog "equivalents" aren't often equivalent in any meaningful sense of the word
"The RNIB is very watchful of the issues around DRM," said Orme, "because it can see evidence of DRM preventing access to content in a world where digital technology actually makes information more accessible rather than less."
As an example, take the case of Lynn Holdsworth, who bought an electronic copy of the Bible from Amazon. It refused to allow text-to-speech, which Holdsworth required. She contacted Amazon, which has a policy of not refunding e-books after a successful download.
"On Amazon's advice, Lynn Holdsworth contacted the publisher, but the publisher referred her back to Amazon," writes Akester. "Neither Amazon nor the publisher were able to assist her and she ended up obtaining an illegal copy of the work (which her screen reader application could access)."