May 24, 2006

Battling DRM outside Seattle WinHEC conference

Author: Steve R. Hastings

SEATTLE -- It was Tuesday morning, and inside the Washington State Convention and Trade Center, Microsoft's Bill Gates was preparing to give the keynote address to the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC). Out front, a protest group organized by the Free Software Foundation (FSF) greeted people as they arrived at WinHEC; they were easy to spot, as most of them wore bright yellow "hazardous material" suits. But the protesters warned not of biohazards, but rather of digital rights management.

As chilly Seattle rain drifted down, the "DRM Elimination Crew" marched back and forth in their suits, handing out brochures like "Microsoft Vista - DRM'd and Defective By Design," "DRM IS Digital Restrictions Management," and "Restricting you the User," to curious passers-by.

The event was organized by Peter Brown of the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and Gregory Heller of CivicActions. Brown told me that this was a starter protest. "We weren't ready for a large group yet, so we deliberately gave somewhat short notice. We wanted a 'flash crowd.' About 25 people showed up, which was the perfect size for today. Later on, we will hold other demonstrations, and we will give out more notice to attract more demonstrators."

DRM protesters in Seattle - click to enlarge

The plans for the "hazardous materials" suits were somewhat last-minute. Some of the suits were shipped by the manufacturer just the day before, arriving at the hotel in Seattle just in time for the demonstration. Other suits were packed in Gregory Heller's checked baggage -- but they didn't make it onto the same airplane with him. The Transportation Security Agency held onto the suits for inspection, but they did arrive on the next airplane.

In the end, the suits and the hard hats made it in time, and there were enough volunteers to wear them all.

Hazard alert!

For an hour before Gates' keynote speech, the protesters marched out in front of the Convention Center. Several held signs with the "Defective By Design" logo on them. Sometimes the protesters simply stood there, handing out flyers with the anti-DRM message, while from time to time they would run from one place to another, as if responding to an urgent hazard alert. The flyers were short and to the point, explaining the threat posed by DRM with simple examples such as "The media you buy for Vista does not belong to you."

The suits are actually training suits, with "ELIMINATE DRM" logos applied to them. Most of the suits were just yellow jumpsuits, but a few of the protesters sported complete suits, head to toe, with a plastic window in front of the face. The weather was cool and dry at the beginning of the protest, but it started to rain after a while. The plastic windows on the suits began fogging up in the chilly weather.

DRM protester handing out a flyer - click to enlarge

The protest worked well to attract attention. Many bystanders accepted flyers. Overall, the best single word to describe the protest was "fun." People walking by were initially curious, and as they understood the symbolism of the protest they broke out in grins.

Winding down

At 9:00 a.m. the demonstrators headed back to the parking garage, to take off the suits and store them in the organizers' van. Brown thanked the volunteers and said a few more words. "If you took photos, put them up on Flickr. If you have a blog, write about this. We want to get the word out. Tell Slashdot, Digg the story, put it on del.icio.us -- anything you can think of."

He also talked a bit more about DRM and the Defective By Design group. "Products containing DRM are defective -- only, unlike other products, these defects are deliberately created. In any other industry, these kind of limitations would be considered major flaws. A media player that only plays their media is like a car that only drives their roads!

"This is our chance to stop DRM before it gets really bad."

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