Digital rights management and the breakdown of social norms

Abstract: May claims that the ease of copying digital works has sparked an attempt by (largely corporate) owners to enforce their perceived legal rights over the works' digital embodiments with technological tools for digital rights management (DRM). He argues that these DRM technologies have sparked a renewed political debate over the balance of private and public rights in this arena.

The heart of the problem is "a systematic privileging of owners' rights in the face of users' poverty" and removal of the grey, flexible area that used to provide more balance between the two.

This shifting of the burden of proof for copyright use to the user has led to a breakdown in the norms that allowed old IPR (intellectual property rights) laws to succeed. It has led to a heightened recognition of the false scarcity created by IPR: information is not inherently a limited commodity, but is made so by owners for profit.

Given the resource gap between developed and developing nations, especially, the question becomes: does the innovation sparked by private rewards provide more benefit to our global society than open and accessible knowledge?

May argues that, as the problem is political, so is the solution. Because IPRs deny the importance of the public realm, a new politics of the knowledge commons must be advocated and should be modeled after the successful methods of environmental politics.


May calls for a rebalancing of private and public IPRs, but I lean more toward the civil disobedience stand than his reasoned, long-term strategy. I see open access journals and open source software as particularly powerful in redressing the poverty gap perpetuated by Western corporate interpretations of IPR.

When the state of Kerala in India recently decided, based on their high literacy and low monetary resources, to begin implementing and teaching only open source software, I cheered. This leveraging of people power and education is similar to what drupal is attempting. Drupal is an open source web content management system, closely affiliated with LIS communities, as well as a global community of developers. Given the scarcity of monetary resources in many places, we need to leverage global community to create an open knowledge commons.

One problem with this idea is the current dearth of global filters. Who filters if there are no for-fee databases, indexes, abstracts, bibliographies, etc.? We need to be able to use bibliographic-type searches, as one does in WorldCat, to find resources, but that implies someone is cataloging the information in open access journals.

We need:

  • a single, international standard for and source of cataloging (like Library of Congress or BBC),
  • editorial-/librarian-like services to catalogue open access journals, and also
  • education of authors and the general public (as in Wikipedia's rules of use) to do their own cataloging.

We must leverage people power (in a more informed way than' social bookmarking service does) to catalogue the internet's knowledge. This leveraging, however, implies a certain level of information infrastructure and education that may be lacking in certain parts of the country and world.

May, C. (2003). Digital rights management and the breakdown of social norms . First Monday, 8(11). Retrieved September 21, 2008 from