Ideal DRM

Bill Gates recently commented that copy protections for digital media are too complex for most consumers. In the end of the day incentive systems (for artists) make a difference...

Bill Gates recently commented that copy protections for digital media are too complex for most consumers.

In the end of the day incentive systems (for artists) make a difference...

...But we don't have the right thing here in terms of simplicity or interoperability.

An ideal DRM system, at least from a consumer standpoint, isn't hard to imagine. Basically, it needs to allow consumers to use their media however they want, whether it's streamed within the home, copied to another device owned by them, played on a device at a sister's house, or shared (to a certain extent) with that sister for a period of time. The DRM would still block the ability to post protected digital content on file trading networks, but so long as its playable within a consumer's local media playback ecosystem, most consumers could care less.

This would confine objections to DRM to those who have an ideological dislike for the concept of intellectual property. Think about it. If you could use your media on ANY device, how would the fact that you couldn't post that media on your website for public download affect you (something you shouldn't be doing anyway)?

DRM, in other words, should be invisible. Is that even possible?

I think it is, though we have to dispense to a certain extent with hardware-locking concepts that typify current attempts at controlling how consumers use digital media in favor of something more closely tied to an individual person. Technical complexities aside, however, even if a simple and universal solution could be devised, the universality would be undermined by the fact that there's money to be made from licensing a universal DRM standard. This leads to fragmentation and incompatible implementations among companies competing to become the DRM standard - basically, what we have today.

The open source community is no help in this regard. Besides the fact that many in the community oppose DRM in principle (hence anti-DRM verbiage being added to GPLv3), open source is no more likely to avoid a fragmented solution. Fill a room with 100 developers, and you'll get 100 opinions about the best way to write a piece of software.

Philips managed to make a universal digital standard with its CD format, albeit one that didn't need to contend with the complexities of DRM. That success, however, does give clues as to the shape a successful DRM standard might take: it must be cheap and easy to implement on any device.

That's why the open source community would have a decent chance in the DRM space were they to get past their anti-DRM biases and make something truly "invisible." One thing the open source community could ensure was that the result would be free (as in cost). That, however, is like asking a pacifist to devise a theory of a just war. Besides, it's unlikely content companies would accept a format backed by people who take a dim view of intellectual property. So, even if the community could devise a solution, it's questionable whether it would be selected by companies who create content that might be protected by such DRM technology.

This leaves the DRM field to proprietary companies.  The exact shape that technology will take is still a work in progress.  But if CD technology is any guide, at least the result will be cheap.


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