Burk: Materiality and Textuality in Digital Rights Management

Burk, D. L. (2010). Materiality and textuality in digital rights management. Computers and Composition, 27(3), 225-234. doi:10.1016/j.compcom.2010.06.007





Burk argues that digital rights management (DRM) "constitutes a conscious attempt to re-impose upon digital works the material exclusion that has been lost through digitization” (p. 225).


Research Questions:


It is implied that this work responds to question of how copyright protections (and the perceived rights of copyright holders) have been influenced by access through digitization.




Burk charts the historical development of digital rights management as both concept and practice, using such theoretical lenses as post-modernism''s intermingling of materiality and meaning as well as an extended application of Latour''s notion of artifactual constraints.




Historically, copyright law originally developed to protect tangible or physical texts; the application of copyright law has become problematic with the onset of digitized texts. Copyright holders have developed  pseudo-legal technological protections (aka shrinkwrap or "clickwrap") to protect their intellectual property as well as pushing for additional legal protections under, for example, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which criminalizes attempts at circumventing DRM controls.


Author''s Interpretation of Results:


Burk contends that the legal and technical treatment of digital texts as material is problem-laden and labor-intensive. While he acknowledges others'' calls for a re-envisionment of copyright, he does not address this possibility. He interprets his findings to be one of cause and effect: as long as copyright focuses on material copies as the foundation of compensating artists, technology will be used to protect those rights.


Suggestions for Further Research:






Overall, the article is insightful in that it offers a different approach towards the issues with DRM and suggest that a changing perspective may inspire more effective solutions. One major concern is that much of the scholarship upon which Burk has relied is dated, even for an historical study. The average date of his sources is 1998; it is difficult to believe that there have been no significant events in intellectual property (IP) or DRM since 2007, the date of the most recent work cited, and one of only three (out of nearly fifty) that he sites that were published  in 2005 or after. Furthermore, while his abstract implies that he will be addressing how anticircumvention measures "limit the prospects for creative actions with secured texts" (p. 225), the section which ostensibly addresses this does not reference such concepts as the commons; instead Burk relies more on metaphor (DRM as Latour''s speed bumps, DRM as child-proof caps) than the technological controls'' impact on creativity. Finally, Burk may want to consider the ways some copyright holders have retheorized their text production and access, such Lessig (who is cited elsewhere in the piece) providing freely accessible books, or with the establishment of the Creative Commons.