The DMCA is a Corporate Subsidy

Planned obsolescence is a term generally used by the economically ignorant to explain the improvement of products over time. The claim is that, for example, Apple doesn’t make as good of phones as they could because they want them to be obsolete next year so consumers will buy the new one. This ignores the fact that using the latest and greatest hardware drastically increases costs so manufacturers of mass produced devices tend to use components that are still very powerful but cheaper as they rely on older technology. It also ignores the fact that a phone isn’t suddenly obsolete just because a new model has been released. If there were the case there would be no market for used phones.

But there are times when examples of planned obsolescence, that is to say times when companies invested time and resources guaranteeing a product would cease to function after a certain period of time, can be found. Not surprisingly most of these examples rely on various corporate subsidies put into place by the state. One of those subsidies is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The DMCA criminalizes the production and distribution of technology that circumvents copyright protection schemes, which are commonly referred to as Digital Rights Management (DRM). How is that a corporate subsidy? Let’s take this case of actual planned obsolescence as an example:

The IlluMask is a $30 “light therapy” mask that utilizes LED lights to zap away bacteria, stimulate skin cells and otherwise fight acne/aging (depending on what model you purchase.) Sounds great (if you buy IlluMask’s claims). A lifetime of skin revitalization, and all for just $30. Oh, wait.

The trouble is, it is limited to 30 daily uses of 15 minutes each, totaling just 7 1/2 hours, effectively lasting you a month. At the end of which, you just discard the device and get a new one. That seems like a ridiculous waste of a perfectly fine, functional device whose LED’s can last at least 30,000 to 40,000 hours.

Even if we ignore the negative environmental impact of discarding plastic masks loaded with perfectly good LEDs, there’s still the incredible audacity of IlluMask’s claim that its mask will only last 30 days, at which point the LEDs doing all of the facial revitalization/bacteria zapping are suddenly useless, even with well over 99.97% of their lifespan still ahead of them (based on 35,000 hours).

The manufacturers of the IlluMask utilize DRM to prevent the device from working after 30 days. Fortunately bypassing the DRM is easy:

1. Change the batteries if lights are getting dimmer.
2. Use a screwdriver and open the case. Then remove batteries and unscrew screws so the plastic battery holder on top of the circuit board can be moved over. Be careful NOT to damage any of the delicate wiring.
3. Now that the circuit board is exposed, put the batteries back in their slots.
4. Using a piece of wire (such as a paper clip) touch one end of your wire and place it where the thin copper wire connects to the circuit board (silver spot marked LED). Touch the other end to the little RESET copper circle–located on the left of the circuit board (use the copper circle above the word RESET, not below).
5. Press the start button while the wire is in place.
6. Move your wire from the RESET button to the TEST button.
7. Press the start button again while the wire is in place, and the count should reset to 30!

Unfortunately the DMCA makes disabling the DRM a potentially criminal offense. And herein lies the subsidy. Thanks to the DMCA developing DRM technology can be worth the investment in time and resources. Even though DRM can always be bypassed, which would making it a poor investment in time and resources under normal circumstances, the existence of the DMCA means that anybody who does develop methods of bypassing DRM faces fines and prison time for doing so. The state threatens violence against anybody who attempts to bypass DRM, which drastically raises the cost of doing so. And the tax victims gets to foot the bill for sending the heavily armed cops to kidnap developers of DRM bypassing technology, having highly paid prosecutors and judges argue and rule the developer’s guilt, and guarding the prison the developer will be kept in for years. Were the DMCA not in place bypassing DRM would carry no risks and manufacturers would have no recourse other than attempt to develop a hardier DRM mechanism.