Why an open standard for DRM won't prevent the DRM trainwreck

Why an open standard for DRM won't prevent the DRM trainwreck

Summary: If you've been following my various rantings on this blog, particularly the ones about file formats (OpenDocument Format vs. Microsoft's Office XML-based formats) or digital restrictions management (DRM) [sic], or a lot of what I've written over the last five years about open standards and intellectual property, then you'll know that for the benefit of technology buyers (ZDNet's audience), I'm a strong advocate of open standards.

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TOPICS: Open Source
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If you've been following my various rantings on this blog, particularly the ones about file formats (OpenDocument Format vs. Microsoft's Office XML-based formats) or digital restrictions management (DRM) [sic], or a lot of what I've written over the last five years about open standards and intellectual property, then you'll know that for the benefit of technology buyers (ZDNet's audience), I'm a strong advocate of open standards.  Although I think its important to stick to open standards as much as possible in as many technologies as possible, I'm more sensitive to the areas in technology where proprietary choices can lead to or help maintain very large technology monocultures that restrict choice and, by virtue of that, often result in artificially propped up pricing for technology. 

When technology buyers opt for a proprietary foundational technology (be it a file format, a security technology like DRM, or something else like them), they're handing control of almost everything about that part of their technology -- the budget for it, the security of it, the performance of it, the choices for things that work with it, etc -- to the owner of that proprietary technology (ownership is usually afforded to the owners by way of a patent). 

As an example, whether they know it or not, users of Apple's iTunes Software, iPods, and Apple's iTunes Music Store (iTMS) are, by virtue of Apple's FairPlay DRM -- a security technology that lives at the core of all three offerings -- leaving the long term value of their investment up to Apple.  Today, iPod buyers may be happy with their purchase and many are buying tons of music on iTMS.  But somewhere down the line (1) after they've amassed a few thousand 99-cent songs (and now $1.99 videos) in their private content collections and (2) when they decide they like the features of some software other than iTunes or a device other than Apple's iPods, they may be disappointed to learn that their content won't work in that software or on those devices.  The choices at that point will be difficult; Throw away the content collection and start over, or buy one of the devices on the market that Apple says you can buy, if you want to continue to enjoying the content you've purchased through the iTMS at whatever price Apple dictates. 

The technology world refers to this as a "lock-in" or a "walled-garden."  As the cliche's imply, once you're in a walled-garden, you're pretty much at the mercy of the local horticulturist to get out.  And, getting out isn't just an issue for those looking to switch to new playback technologies (for whatever reasons; features, cost, performance, security, etc.).  It's also an issue for those looking to interoperate.  For example, if you buy content from the iTMS, wouldn't it be nice to know that it will playback on your home theatre system as easily as it plays back on your iPod? In other words, the content should easily interoperate across all of your playback technologies.  But it doesn't and the situation, on its present course,  is only going to get worse.  99 cents is a seductive price when it comes to amassing a collection of a la carte audio.  $1.99 is a great price for video as well.   Those are the proprietary razor blades.  The more of these sold into the market, the better the prospects are for the Apple's razors in five or ten years and the more control Apple is given over the market for razors.

In explaining the interoperability conundrum to a less technical audience than ZDNet's, BusinessWeek's Stephen Wildstrom does a masterful job (far more eloquently than I have in any of my posts) of describing how the proprietary DRM schemes from Microsoft and Apple are leading us to a trainwreck (free registration may be required):

Let's say you have a Windows Media Center PC linked to your TV, with some episodes of Desperate Housewives stored on the hard drive. Because iTunes won't work through the Media Center software, you'll have to switch the Media Center to regular Windows mode and trade your remote for a mouse to see the shows. Even so, you're better off than a Mac owner who wants to download a show from Movielink: The service's DRM software works only on Windows PCs.

I've been writing extensively about the trainwreck and how, until the public responds to the purveyors of these technologies the way it responded to Sony for the recent rootkit fiasco (the threat of economic punishment), the situation is likely to spiral to a point of no return that will leave many of us wishing we acted when we had the chance.  Until last night, when I met Brad Templeton, chairman of the board at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, my position has basically been that DRM as an idea is a bad idea (especially the way it is being implemented) but that if we must have it, then at least let's have one that's based on an open standard so that the content you buy can flow frictionlessly from one of your devices to the other without running into a playback gotcha.  But, based on what Templeton told me, I now realize that even an open standard won't do much to solve the problem.  This for me -- a huge proponent of open standards -- was such devastating news that Templeton will tell you that at first, I refused to believe it.  But it's true and perhaps just as troubling is how open source software is one of the reasons why.

Templeton taught me something about how DRM works that I had never stopped to consider.  As it turns out, a proprietary DRM scheme relies on the proprietary closed source software that works with it to form the one-two punch of what makes DRM function.   The great thing about open standards is that they make it possible for anybody including open source developers to implement them in their software.   But if there was an open standard for DRM, the resulting open source implementations would very likely defeat the purpose of the DRM in the first place.  The reason proprietary DRM works is that the vendor is in control of both the DRM technology that secures the content and the playback technology that knows how to unlock it and play it back.  So, by virtue of what the proprietary playback software is capable of, that vendor is completely in charge of what happens to the content once it's unlocked.  For example, through their software, the vendor is in charge of whether music can be played back, whether a CD can be ripped from it, and even how many CDs can be ripped.  The one thing they don't let you do with their software is create unauthorized copies that can be distributed en masse via the Internet.  At least not without some difficulty (what I call friction).

But when the vendor doesn't control both parts of the one-two punch, as would be the case if the DRM scheme was based on an open standard that anybody including open source developers could support in their software, the DRM is essentially rendered in effective because the minute someone else like an open source developer can develop the playback technology, that someone else also gets to decide what can be done with the content after it's unlocked.  For example, the software can make unauthorized digital copies -- the very thing DRM is supposed to prevent in the first place.

Of course, the loophole exists with or without open source developers.  Nothing for example prevents IBM from going off and developing a playback technology that supports the open standard and that can make digital copies too.  But the likelihood that some open source software that makes copies would turn up a day or two after the open standard is published is about 100 percent. 

So, is all hope lost? In other words, is getting rid of DRM altogether (something that the entertainment industry will never consider) the only other option in order to avoid the trainwreck or are there are other options.  For example, if there was a single standard (not an open one, but a single one that was overseen by a single DRM authority that everyone agreed to support), then the licensing of that standard could be conditional on what the licencees do with it. For example, if your software makes unprotected digital copies of music -- something DRM was designed to prevent -- then you won't get a license to the DRM standard and you won't be able to incorporate support for it into your software.  The central authority would also be responsible for the compliance testing to make sure developers are toeing the line.  This is very much like the way the Java ecosystem works  -- where there's a compliance test that stands between software developers and (1) certification and subsequently (2) the ability to license the Java trademark.

Right off the bat, one problem with this sort of proviso is that it's probably incompatible with open source licensing since it prevents sublicensing (a key tenant of open source development).  Any time developers must answer to a central licensing authority in order to develop an implementation of some specification like a DRM scheme, the specification is inherently not sub-licensable.  There are other "incompatibilities" with the open source gestalt noted Templeton in an e-mail to me:

All the DRM systems that have relied on standards (such as DVDs, CableCard etc.) have had a certification body that would not let your hardware or software have the keys unless it went through a certification process (usually very expensive) to test if it met their rules and was robust enough.   No open source system could meet any of these rules, even if the developers could afford the large fees to be told they don't meet them....The newer systems include the ability to revoke keys, too, so if a key is compromised from some player, they can cancel it out, and the compromised player will stop working, either entirely, or with any new media issued.

In general, anytime such control points become part of an important ecosystem, the other nasty little side effect is the stifling of the same innovation that the open source source community is known for.  Wrote Templeton:

Because DRM can't be implemented solely in an open source system, we're left with two choices -- either barring open source tools from the media playing arena, or doing all media playing in secured hardware which blocks the end user's ability to change the system or innovate....Since everybody wants their computer to play media these days, barring open source systems from participating in the media playing arena is untenable, and will deny the world the very thing that's driving much of the innovation in the space.

So, for the record, I stand corrected thanks to Mr. Templeton.  At this point, avoiding the DRM trainwreck apparently means avoiding DRM altogether which means we're in for a helluva bumpy ride since DRM ain't about to go away anytime soon.

Topic: Open Source

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  • Obviously

    I thought the point of this article was obvious to everybody (which just shows that I still overestimate the intelligence of "everybody".)

    To protect something, you must limit who has a key, and make certain there are no methods of avoiding the lock. If everybody has the key, such as any open standard that allows open software to unlock the content, then there is no protection. If there is a method of avoiding the lock, such as putting a camera in front of a television and a microphone in front of a speaker, then any protection is limited to honest people. Locks on cars and houses can offer perfect protection as long as the doors, windows, and walls are unbreakable (and we know how much excitement the word "unbreakable" creates in the software world.)

    There is no good DRM technology. There can never be DRM technology that protects anything from being transformed into an open format by someone who has the key. All DRM does is violate the fair use rights (and annoy) honest people.

    There was another article on ZDNet about watermarking. To be done correctly, removal of the watermark would destroy the content. The watermark must survive transformation from digital to analog format. Then watermarking provides accountability, and content providers can focus their legal efforts. But even watermarking is bypassed by starting with an unmarked copy, or one with a watermark that is not stored. Buy the DVD with cash, then make as many copies as you want because your identity is unknown.

    There is no perfect solution. Eventually all content will be free, because protecting it is impossible. That is not making the content providers happy, and they will torture their customers with many attempts at the impossible before they surrender.
    solprovider
    • Why do you think the content companies will surrender?

      The content companies will never allow their products to be free, I believe. The best hope is management turnover that brings into authority people who recognize that theft can be out-competed. And that will take a long time.

      The reason is the power the content companies have obtained. The US government provides resources to continue the fight. Laws will criminalize whatever the content companies want criminalized.

      All electronic devices that play the content will accpet the requirements placed on them by the content companies, so long as the restrictions do not antagonize customers excessively. That means they study how customers use the devices and adjust the rules accordingly.

      You know that the content companies can affect whether much of the content stored in your house continues to exist, and how it's used while it's available to you.

      You know that much hardware is being redesigned to fit a DRM scheme, including pc's. That alone will block the open source software makers, because the content companies won;t trust them with the keys that unlock these devices.
      How many people will buy Linux if they know the devices can't play media, at least not without an additional, costly product.

      If you had that much power, would you give it up just because the ostensible purpose for which you received it cannot succeed?
      The executives are often non-technical people. They may also believe that a sufficiently strong lock-down can be found.
      They may believe that if they only control the users enough they can make it work.

      And in the meantime, they gain unparalleled control over how their products are used. There's money in that somewhere. Failure is only a reason to tighten the control more.

      It's a win for the content companies even when they lose. Because losing gives them justification for asking more power over users.
      Anton Philidor
      • Which Is The Problem

        Currently DRM allows the content companies more rights than what they legally have under copyright law.

        The entire reason for DRM is not to stop piracy but to do an end-round run of the limitations of the rights holders found in sections 107-122, section 1008, and the exceptions and limitations found sections 1201 c-k of the DMCA and their rights (Which the content companies are happy to ignore anyhow - The DMCA for example forbids encoding regular broadcast TV).

        If you have not written to your congress person yet to stop this madness and to support either the BALANCE act or the DMCAR then you are enableing them. If you did not write the LOC for more exemptions to the DMCA you enabled them.

        Microsoft and the content comapanies are working in collusion to push one format... The MS Media format.
        Edward Meyers
      • Winning is Losing for Content Providers

        This post is answering Anton, so please read his post to understand the context.

        I do not think the content companies will surrender. They must, but society will have to force them to it, which means defeating them, which means a war. They are winning so far, but only the die-hard rebels are fighting because war has not been officially declared. Berlind and others are trying to rouse the general public. When (not if) the general public enters battle, they will win. The question is whether content companies will surrender or be destroyed.

        I agree it could take a very long time. The content companies prepared for this day by providing mind-destroying entertainment, and making it the primary pastime of the public. Now most of the public cannot think, and does not realize their rights are being removed. Eventually DRM will become so restrictive they will become annoyed enough to notice. The main conundrum of the content companies is creating effective DRM without crossing that line.

        I agree the content companies (and DRM-enabling companies like MS and Apple) own the US government. The war against them may require a revolution. Luckily, the US has a revolution every four years, so it may be possible to win without bloodshed. Can a US President be elected on the "Free Movies" platform? That would definitely create interest by the public.

        Hardware-based DRM is the only effective method. The iPod is a great seller, but as Berlind repeatedly mentions, it creates lock-in. When people realize their next new device cannot play all the music and video they have bought, the people will be very upset. That could be the trigger for public awareness of this issue.

        I disagree with your conclusion. The content providers will continue to take our freedoms, and continue to create more restrictive devices. The more they win, the closer the day when everybody says "No more."
        solprovider
        • The public and rights

          You've seen the polls showing:
          - the small percentage who would vote for the Bill of Rights as new legislation
          - the large percentage who like the patriot act just as it is, if not stronger
          - the large percentage who accept torture as a means of interrogation
          - the large percentage who are not that bothered by internment.

          Now, what was your point about a revolution waiting to happen because the media companies are gaining too much power?
          Before you answer, please remember that the media companies are including ways to adjust the amount of restriction based on public response.

          Please note this post is not advocating or opposing anything political. It is only using examples to indicate that sensitivity to imperiled rights is not the public's first priority.
          Anton Philidor
          • Too optimistic?

            I agree the American public is extremely lax in protecting their freedom, but DRM has the potential to upset their ability to be entertained. I hope not being able to watch their favorite TV show might create more reaction than changing the channel. Buying their entire catalog of songs and movies every few years hurts their bank account. I could be too optimistic, but DRM hurts where even the laziest person feels it.
            solprovider
        • How will the public win?

          By forcing the content providers to restrict their output formats? You may be right...
          No_Ax_to_Grind
        • Something for Nothing

          It bothers me when people talk of "Free Entertainment" and the "right" to other peoples' work.

          In particular, whom do you wish to work without payment so that you may enjoy this free entertainment?

          Should the artist who wrote the song eat dirt so that you may listen to "Freebird" without paying?

          Should the marketing dept. employees who made the movie posters informing you of the latest blockbuster film live in cardboard boxes? What about the employees of the factory who made the paper for the posters?

          Should all the people investing in Disney through their 401k's go without a retirement because you think it is evil for that company to post a profit?

          In general, who do you think should work for free so that you may watch "Free Willy" without having to cough up $9.99?
          buke67
          • Thank you

            I've been thinking the same thing, but couldn't put it into words nearly as well.

            Carl Rapson
            rapson
          • Either..

            you are listening to the wrong people or hearing the wrong message. Most of us that have a problem with all these "solutions" are just concerned with our Fair Use rights. I don't want these for free. I just want to be able to use them as I want. I am not asking to be able to make money off their work. Among other things, I want to be able to format shift my media, be it CDs or DVDs, to a format that suits my needs. Which is what fair use grants me. Or at least it did.
            Patrick Jones
          • Wrong article

            Patrick already said it. You are responding to the wrong article.

            I am a creator. I write articles, books, software, and songs. I want to be compensated for my efforts. I would like each person who benefits from my efforts to give me money. According to our (the US's) original laws, I should have that right for 17 years. According to our current laws, I have that right well after I, my children, and possibly my grandchildren are dead.

            The original duration of monopoly of copyright is obsolete. People live longer. A large public domain can hurt society. What if radio stations only played public domain songs? Nobody would hear anything new.

            Enter the digital age. Most content is owned by large corporations. Almost none of it has entered public domain during my lifetime. "Freebird" was released in 1976. It should be in the public domain.

            Production costs of songs are almost eliminated. Distribution costs are almost eliminated. There are many people willing to act as filters, suggesting new material worth consideration to anybody who values their opinion. There is little need for the music industry, except to make certain the creators are compensated, and the music industry has a very poor record of accomplishing that.

            Movies often have very large budgets. The above progress applies, but the need to protect the investment is much higher. Production values are increasing while production costs are decreasing, so eventually creating a movie will not cost much more than the equivalent amount of music.

            None of this matters to DRM. DRM cannot work. DRM violates fair use rights. DRM eliminates public domain.

            I do not know how to compensate creators in the digital age. If you have any ideas, let me know; I would like to benefit from my work. I do know DRM cannot be the answer.
            solprovider
    • DVDs Could Be Made Traceable

      [i]There was another article on ZDNet about watermarking. To be done correctly, removal of the watermark would destroy the content. The watermark must survive transformation from digital to analog format. Then watermarking provides accountability, and content providers can focus their legal efforts. But even watermarking is bypassed by starting with an unmarked copy, or one with a watermark that is not stored. Buy the DVD with cash, then make as many copies as you want because your identity is unknown.[/i]

      Actually manufacturers of DVDs and CDs could encode content with serial numbers, which would help make them traceable. You might run into issues like requiring purchasers of digital content having to provide a suitable form of ID that is resistant to tampering, so that they can be linked to their content in some kind of database. This could gives rise to other issues like, ?Suppose you lend your friend your DVD and he makes copies of it and distributes them on the Internet, will you be liable??

      There however appears to be two popular basic approaches to trying to minimize piracy: making content directly controllable, or making content traceable. When you make content traceable, the only significant issue consumers have, is guarding their content. When you implement DRM, consumers run into a host of issues. If DRM ties my movie to a particular computer (and maybe allows me to burn the movie to a DVD), doesn?t this mean after a few years, I?m restricted to using only the copy of the movie I have on the DVD? I can?t place the movie on another computer and maybe edit it, and so on. What happens in about 10 ? 20 years when I can no longer find a DVD player to play my content? Doesn?t this mean that my investment in my movie is lost? While the DRM approach is not much different from say the vinyl record approach, which also results in someone losing their investment after a number of years: isn?t unprecedented flexibility one of the main advantages digital content is supposed to provide users? Then there is the problem of easily moving my content among my different devices that DRM gets in the way of.

      The problem with DRM is that it is the natural enemy of creativity and freedom ? since it is all about control. However the digitizing of content is supposed to herald an era of unprecedented creativity and opportunity for both content providers and users. DRM and this new era of personal computing therefore clash. People should be able to archive ebooks, and be able to read them easily on new computers 10, 20, and even 100 years from now. People should also be able to move ebooks among PDAs and PCs freely as well, and not have to cross their fingers hoping that DRM allows them to do this. As far as I can tell, DRM is the lazy scheme to ensure content providers are protected, and this will ultimately limit opportunities for content providers to make money. Making content traceable seems like the better way to go, since this will give consumers greatly appreciated freedom to invest in and do as they please with their licensed content, prompting them to make even more investments in digital content.
      P. Douglas
  • I thought you knew that already,

    The media companies, which are the sole reason DRM exists, do not trust open source software.

    Forget technical issues like sub-licensing; the main issue is the content companies' trust of the provider(s) of the technology and those who incorporate it into their technology.

    Open source is, of course, completely untrustworthy. And was it you or Mr. Farber who quoted a media company executive as saying that no new project or approach could or would be based on Apple products?

    So long as the iPod keeps generating sales, Apple has some credibility as a source of DRM. But even then pricing and other marketing issues are producing largely irreconcilable disputes.

    No, only one company is fully trusted. It believes in DRM, it provides technology that makes the media companies happy. It is able to be flexible with the purposes devised by the media companies; in other words, it does what it's told.

    Mr. Berlind, I think you've seen this aspect of the media juggernaut rolling at you.
    I wonder why you didn't mention it.
    We don't have to wait until all media and all the electronics that play them use Microsoft codecs and Microsoft DRM for the future to become apparent.

    And the reason will be nothing Microsoft did, except to give customers what they want. The media companies are slowly and comfortably putting all their eggs in the one basket that has been fully prepared for them.

    That metaphor looks tangled, but I think it works.
    Anton Philidor
    • Mxed roles

      [i]And the reason will be nothing Microsoft did, except to give customers what they want. The media companies are slowly and comfortably putting all their eggs in the one basket that has been fully prepared for them.[/i]

      The media companies don't buy enough Microsoft software to keep the lobby open. Calling them "customers" is a rather profound distortion.
      Yagotta B. Kidding
      • Please clarify.

        Microsoft is the major DRM supplier after Apple. Sony was next, and you know what happened to them.
        Notice that Mr. Berlind mentions only Apple and Microsoft.

        For the rest of Microsoft's media software, Mr. Berlind used the term "juggernaut". I think his comparison is accurate.

        Are you disagreeing about Microsoft's significance in the media market?
        Anton Philidor
        • Who is Microsoft's customer?

          According to you, Microsoft is destined for hegemony because it "listens to its customers." In the context, that means that it listens to the Content Cartel.

          Or are you implying that Jack and Jill User are demanding DRM?
          Yagotta B. Kidding
          • Then we're agreeing.

            Yes, Microsoft's customer is the "Content Cartel".
            Sometimes the company has been accused of not paying attention to the needs and wants of its customers. That's definitely not the case here.

            (It's also not the case with Microsoft's other products. The company spends substantial amounts of money to find out what customers are willing to purchase. So long as sales are significantly increased, Microsoft is a flexible vendor.)
            Anton Philidor
          • Interesting

            What an interesting discussion.

            Quote: "Microsoft's customer is the 'Content Cartel.' Sometimes the company has been accused of not paying attention to the needs and wants of its customers. That's definitely not the case here.

            Not to underestimate the large content providers, but there are a healthy number of small content providers who are probably assumed to desire the same features as the large providers. Perhaps it is possible that assumption will prove not to be true with the small providers?

            I don't have a good feel for the media market, but in other markets the small providers greatly out number the large providers in all ways. Would you say that is true or false in this case?

            For instance, there are lots of bands who put out their own CDs and there are lots of small label operations. There are local TV stations with their own TV shows. There are lots of training/education organizations who producec content. Is it possible they will not want DRM, or at least certain parts of DRM?

            Another assumption folks seem to be making is the PC will be the center of media for everyone. I'm not so sure that will be the case. It's quite possible some consumer device will fill that role instead. Sure, such a device will involve PC components. In this light though, the use of open source software is not prevented. Consider Tivo. There's an open source core combined with proprietary software and hardware. Consider a great many cell phones, where Linux is the core, with proprietary hardware and software added.
            zztong
          • Making demands.

            If all devices are required to have DRM under law or licensing rules by major content providers, will the preferences of minor providers be significant?

            If every movie studio and every major music company insisted on protections not available to open source software, then who would buy the open source alternative players?

            Yes, acceptable software might be made available to open source under some kind of plan that prevented the protections from being opened sourced, but why shouldn't that software be expensive? And why would customers want to choose limited media functionality when almost all the market simply incorporates DRM?

            The powerful corporations behaving stupidly on DRM have so far been unified. I see little inclination, or benefit, from anyone separating from the pack.
            Bertelsmann, I believe, bought into Napster prematurely. And the rest of the music companies sued Bertelsmann for some of Napster's liability, as determined by the Court. That's the reward of acting independently.
            Anton Philidor
          • Reply to Anton

            Anton, sorry I couldn't reply to your last message. The ZDNet forums wouldn't seem to allow a direct reply. Perhaps their software only allows replies to a certain depth.

            Quote: "If all devices are required to have DRM under law or licensing rules by major content providers, will the preferences of minor providers be significant?"

            Yes. DRM cannot force itself onto media. I can release songs with my own licensing restrictions, including those which might be in conflict with DRM. Will minor providers do this? Yes, certainly.

            Quote: "Yes, acceptable software might be made available to open source under some kind of plan that prevented the protections from being opened sourced, but why shouldn't that software be expensive? And why would customers want to choose limited media functionality when almost all the market simply incorporates DRM?"

            The expense should be whatever they choose to make it. It could be expensive; it could be cheap. Why would a media provider care what device the consumer used? Why would there be limited functionality? A DRM card for use in a Linux PC doesn't have to be limited. A Tivo like device with custom software running on Linux doesn't have to be limited. It may even be possible, though I don't know for sure and I am speculating, that a kernal module for Linux may not have to be open source.
            zztong