Why DRM transparency is good for users and vendors alike

Why DRM transparency is good for users and vendors alike

Summary: As I've written many many times, digital rights management technology (DRM, also known as C.R.


As I've written many many times, digital rights management technology (DRM, also known as C.R.A.P.: Read why or watch CRAP: The Movie)  is nasty stuff that I'd just assume be without.  In the course of trying to manage rights, the "R" in most DRM technologies now stands for "restrictions" instead.  That's because of the way many of these technologies seem to be crossing the line in terms of how they work. For example,  some DRM technologies allow the content licensor to arbitrarily deactivate your content. 

If you make this technology, have the decency to disclose what it's capable of doing or enabling.

I can understand why the entertainment companies feel as though they have no other choice but to place certain restrictions on content that's so easily distributed across the Net. Piracy has eaten away that their bottom lines.  Although an eBay seller I worked with guaranteed me (on the phone, she sounded very honest) that the five seasons of the Sopranos on DVD that she had to sell were not bootlegged copies, now that I have them (at remarkably less cost than what I would have paid retail), I'm not so sure.  The packaging is very different from the packaging that the first season's DVDs that I bought at Sam's Club came in.  And, there are some other irregularities that make me wonder about the authenticity of the DVDs.  I also know someone that spends a lot of time on the Pacific Rim. His DVD collection is extensive. He paid about $1 for each one.  A lot of people downplay the piracy issue.  I don't think it can be dismissed so easily.

Although many non-DRM approaches to weathering the sea change have been put forth, so far, no alternative business model has actually proven itself to sustain the way large, profitable, entertainment companies work.  Perhaps that's just evolution in the works and the disruption caused by the Net will be unavoidable, bringing with it a vastly different entertainment industry than the one we know today.  But, in the meantime, the entertainment gigaplex is clearly resisting extinction, it sees DRM as the key, and there is almost no one in the entertainment foodchain that isn't willing to help.  Even lawmakers who are willing to make everything from the exclusion of DRM technologies to the circumvention of them by consumers illegal are in on the game.

Like it or not, this CRAP isn't going away anytime soon.  Derek Slater may see me as changing my tune and Cory Doctorow as the someone who comes to the rescue when it appears as though I've lost my senses, but I think Slater has me wrong.  As an eternal advocate for end users, I'm anti-DRM. Period.  But, while I continue to campaign against DRM, you'll have to excuse me for being realistic about the situation and wishing that if this crap is going to get forced down our throats, the least the entertainment industry can do is make it a little more palatable than it is.  Until yesterday, Sun's Project DReaM, even though it's imperfect, seemed like the best elixir going. 

But yesterday, Navio came out of stealth mode with what could be the best possible solution as long as it survives any legal challenges that come from the Apple camp.  Basically, Navio is an online content source for any kind of protected content (audio, video, software, games, etc.) and the company says it doesn't care what kind of device you have today or tomorrow.  In what can be best described as your personal digital locker, Navio keeps track of the content you purchase in perpetuity and it will always make sure it works on your target device, regardless of what sort of copy protection envelope that device expects to remove.  Because Microsoft licenses its technology and Navio is a licensee of it, Navio is a PlaysForSure-compliant source of content the same way Napster, Rhapsody, and other PlaysForSure-compliant content sources. So, your content will always work on PlaysForSure-compliant devices from companies like iRiver, Creative and Motorola (maker of the new Q smartphone).  

Apple doesn't license its technology (FairPlay) though and to get around that thorny little problem so that the content in your digital locker will work on an iPod if you currently or ever own one, Navio has reverse-engineered FairPlay so that it can deliver protected yet compatible content to iPods. In other words, Navio is emulating the iTunes Music Store (iTMS).  To iPods, Navio is no different than iTMS.  The last company to reverse engineer FairPlay was RealNetworks. But, based on their assertion that Apple never followed through on its legal challenge against Real, Navio officials think they're immune in the event Apple sues.  I'm not so sure.  Real dropped its aggressive charge into iPod land by licensing Microsoft's alternative instead and so, until yesterday, iTMS was the only source of DRM'd content that could pour right through iTunes and into an iPod.  Maybe that's why Apple lost its litigious appetite when it came to Real. [Corrected 5.23.06 2:53 PM: To this day, according to Real's Music PR director Matt Graves, Real still offers iPod/FairPlay compatibility through its Harmony service.  Apple may have cooled its legal jets with Real being the only iTMS-knockoff.  But now that a third (Navio) has come along, will the very litigious Steve Jobs say enough is enough?]

So Navio is way cool except for one thing: it doesn't have nearly as extensive of library of content as other offerings do.  In six months to a year though, if it's on par with other online offerings and it hasn't had its FairPlay arm amputated by Steve Jobs, Navio could end up being more palatable than anything else that's currently available.

But even if more palatable options like Navio and DReaM enter the market, to the extent that that gigaplex must turn to the technology industry for the sorts of solutions that keep them in business, there's one other practice that might make these technologies more palatable: transparency. DRM, no matter how you slice it, is insidious technology. Or, as ZDNet reader P. Douglas so aptly put it, "a particularly pernicious form of spyware, since it monitors what you do, and thwarts some of your actions."  Why can't the various DRM providers be more transparent about the sorts of so-called "rights management" practices that their solutions enable?  For example, Microsoft has posted a FAQ on its Web site that explains the ins and outs of working with DRM protected files from the consumer side. 

But what about a publicly available FAQ that does the same from the content licensor's side? Or, how about a copy of the PowerPoint presentation that Microsoft showed to MTV when it was explaining to that entertainment company all of the different management "features" that would be available to it should it adopt Microsoft's platform? Anything that gives a us a clearer picture than the one that exists today of the sort of control we're handing over to content licensors and providers when we adopt their technologies. 

I don't mean to single-out Microsoft here.  It's just that the MTV example, with all pernicious behavior it asks us to agree to, is hard evidence of the fact that, by embracing certain playback technologies like Windows Media Player, we could be inviting far more of that rights management functionality into our systems than we realize.  The same goes for the Apple's DRM, the CableLabs-approved DRM, Project DReaM or whatever else comes along. 

If you make this technology, have the decency to disclose to us sheeple what it's capable of doing or enabling.   And by the way, that sort of transparency is good for your business too.  Imagine if there already existed an FAQ (with prominent links to it) called "The official list of everything content providers can do when you run Windows Media Player 11" on Microsoft's Web site.  We might be surprised to learn what's on the list.  But, at least by publishing such a list, Microsoft and other DRM solution providers are being up front with end-users so that we don't end up learning about the capabilities from a content providers' license agreement.  DRM is already an untrustworthy technology.  Leaving end users in the dark about it just makes matters worse.

Topic: Apple

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  • Impact of file sharing.

    The RIAA and MPAA companies have tried very hard to make people thing they have been damaged by filing sharing.
    But even the studies these companies paid for have found that file sharing has little impact.

    The studies that have attempted to be objective have found file sharing has little or no effect on media company revenues. The best one, in my view, said that the net result might be additional sales.

    Of course any study on this subject is going to be technically suspect. But the one conclusion it is not possible to draw is that file sharing has had a substantial negative effect on the bottom line.

    I suggest care in supporting the campaign that has brought us DRM. That's the result of saying there have been definite file sharing losses.
    Anton Philidor
    • Recent study

      I know ZDNet is going to bollocks up this link, but thought this was amusing.

      If you take the damages the RIAA can claim in court proceedings for each song someone downloads, and multiply that by the number of p2p downloads going on, you'll get a figure for one month that's bigger than the yearly GDP of France! Wow, the RIAA must really be losing a lot of money if they're telling the truth...

      tic swayback
      • If they want to pass some laws...

        If they want to pass some laws then how about this:

        Only open, non-patented, royalty free DRM schemes are legal. The current DRM mess is a direct result of Microsoft trying to tie users to Windows, SONY trying to tie users to whatever expensive gadget it is they're making this week, Apple trying to....well, you get the picture. This con only ever lead to consumer harm, and that's what the laws are supposed to be there for, right?
        • Or how about this one....?

          Set a sensible limit for fines for stuff that's been in the shops for a while: $10 per song, $100 per movie, something like that. Small enough that it's only worth going after major file sharers.

          Much stiffer penalties for people who take cameras into cinemas or leak CDs before they go on sale is ok, but once something is past its sales peak then P2P probably does more good than harm.

          Fining people $100,000 or throwing them in jail for sharing a few mp3s is [b]way[/b] too harsh for the actual harm being done. Current laws put file sharers on the same level as rapists and murderers, the law needs some perspective.
          • Sony has already set the price for an album

            In their rootkit settlement, you get $7.50 and one downloaded album, or no cash, and 3 downloaded albums. That means Sony values an album download at $3.75, and that's a reasonable fine for infringing copyright.
            tic swayback
  • What about DMCA?

    Good post David, but doesn the DMCA strictly forbid the reverse engineering of DRM technology? I am under the impression that DMCA is it a felony to OWN any tool which can be used to defeat DRM -- even though you do not use that tool to illegally redistribute copyrighted content.

    Isn't that exactly what Navio did by reverse engineering Apple's DRM technology? If so, it seems to me that Navio has more to fear from the DoJ than from Apple.
    M Wagner
    • I believe it forbids circumvention

      Navio and Real didn't circumvent DRM. They added a flavor of it through their reverse engineering efforts.

    • OWN?

      The new ammendments to the DMCA makes it illegal to *THINK* ABOUT OWNING!

      Wonder how they are going to enforce that one?
      Henrick Ericcson
    • DMCA explicitly allows reverse engineering

      [i](f) Reverse Engineering. - (1) Notwithstanding the provisions of subsection (a)(1)(A), a person who has lawfully obtained the right to use a copy of a computer program may circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access to a particular portion of that program for the sole purpose of identifying and analyzing those elements of the program that are necessary to achieve interoperability of an independently created computer program with other programs, and that have not previously been readily available to the person engaging in the circumvention, to the extent any such acts of identification and analysis do not constitute infringement under this title.

      (2) Notwithstanding the provisions of subsections (a)(2) and (b), a person may develop and employ technological means to circumvent a technological measure, or to circumvent protection afforded by a technological measure, in order to enable the identification and analysis under paragraph (1), or for the purpose of enabling interoperability of an independently created computer program with other programs, if such means are necessary to achieve such interoperability, to the extent that doing so does not constitute infringement under this title.

      (3) The information acquired through the acts permitted under paragraph (1), and the means permitted under paragraph (2), may be made available to others if the person referred to in paragraph (1) or (2), as the case may be, provides such information or means solely for the purpose of enabling interoperability of an independently created computer program with other programs, and to the extent that doing so does not constitute infringement under this title or violate applicable law other than this section.

      (4) For purposes of this subsection, the term "interoperability" means the ability of computer programs to exchange information, and of such programs mutually to use the information which has been exchanged.[/i]

      So far only 1 court has disallowed RE- And it was due to the software being GPLed and hence in the courts view "Non Commercial".
      Edward Meyers
  • David, too bad you weren't so all worked up

    when the pirates were stealing anything not bolted down. Perhaps if you had gotten off you editorial backside and spoke up about copyright theft we wouldn't be having this discussion...

    IMHO, you got exactlly what you deserve.
    • Blaming the innocent?

      Enough of this nonsense No Ax. Am I to blame because someone got murdered on my street and I hadn't spent the last few months patrolling for murderers? Why do you insist on blaming law abiding people for the sins of criminals? Are we legally required to make citizen's arrests on everyone we see breaking the law?

      ---IMHO, you got exactlly what you deserve---

      Luckily, your humble opinion is useless. It's so far off base that it makes no sense. Instead of blaming the innocent, why not instead come up with useful suggestions that are fair for both media rights holders and consumers?
      tic swayback
    • Axe, you really must be GW Bush...

      I've never experienced anyone other than GW so Anti-Consumer, Pro-Corporate as you.

      Not meant to be a slam. Hey, it's what makes the world go round.

      But you know, at some point the consumer needs to win every now and then, or there won't BE any consumers for a product.
      • Don?t worry, even if consumers won?t win, neither will the other side

        There is a real issue we all seem to be forgetting. That is; there is almost no other issue where a segment of the corporate world is not only inevitably heading into an loosing situation for them, but the harder they try to avoid it the more it?s a looser for the public too. From what I have seen, and understand the facts to be from those who know about such things, in the end there is little to nothing the media companies can do to even significantly slow piracy given the format they insist on using to produce it. They can load it up with tricks and gimmicks to the point it?s almost unusable for the average person, but those who know how will always be able to get around the DRM if given enough time and incentive. Incentive will come by the truckload if the general public finds it too difficult to make copies of their own CD?s or DVD?s and start looking to purchase cheep knock-offs from real pirates instead. Rumor has it many pirates are just waiting for the day a really tough DRM gets invented the average person just cannot get around. That?s the day the real pirates will get rich because it won?t stop them, at least not for long, and their customer base will quadruple in a matter of a year or less.

        The unfortunate truth for the media industry is that there really isn?t any way they can create something that cannot be uncreated, and we are headed to an eventual point in society that anything that can be digitized and put on a disk for distribution will have little monetary value even if its practical value is significant. This is a situation that is neither going to happen over night, or even next year, but it?s a fact that so long as you are producing a product that a 12 year old can make an exact copy of in his living room, or it can be purchased for next to nothing from a guy on the corner, as a producer of that product you cannot justify charging significant sums of money for it.

        The only solution for those in the media and software industry is to move software, music, movies and games to a format that provides in effect a hardware solution. Disks of any kind are not it. Disks are burned, and computers have built in hardware for reading and burning disks because disks are also used for media backup and storage, not just for music movies and software. The latter products should have their own format, such as a cartridge and be uninstallable unless from the cartridge.
        • Wrong, All of them. They have no rights.

          They should have no rights to control a product once it is in the hands of the consumer. Imagine you have a washing machine that requires the permission of the manufacturer to use it.

          They are all heading in the wrong direction. That is why the music industry is losing business for a decade. The hot iPod is no different. The online sale is only 5% of the industry.

          The right direction is simple, althought not obvious at first glance. People can make as many copies as they want, but only the legal owner can use it.
    • Recriminations will solve the problem. Not. [eom]

      no body
    • No_Ax change your handle

      You have many axes to grind that you should change your handle to Pickle_Up_My_A_s.

      There is nothing worse than a myopic complainer.
    • the pirates (in Hollywood) are still stealing everything, bolted or not

      No Ax, always so quick to the fray he never remembers his brains.
  • A loose noose can be tightend at any time.

    Navio may offer more "fairer play" options than any other DRMs currently being put forward, but because such systems are remotely upgradable ( and you will have to upgrade to view new content ) the number of so called "freedoms" the DRM offers can be reduced over time.

    A loose noose can be tightend at any time, slowly choking the life out a persons rishts under fair use and the first sale doctrine.

    For example, in mid-2004, Apple released an update to iTunes (version 4.6), which would refuse to play files processed with Hymn.

    Microsoft has repeatedly embraced and extended standards, introducing "incompatibilities" which restricted competitors interoperating. Also Microsoft's new Urge service locks out Ipod users out of exclusive MTV content.

    David Berlind, please dont go down the DRM road. You and Zdnet/Cnet are being played for a sucker by Navio.
    David Mohring
    • Going down the DRM road

      I don't want to go down the DRM road. But, given that DRM isn't going away anytime soon, what should I do? Continue to do nothing but advocate "no DRM." Or should I advocate that as the most desirable outcome while figuring out how to make the CRAP being shoved down our throats just a bit more reasonable that it is. Put another way, I can be pretty idealistic about certain things. But idealism doesn't serve the needs of my neighbor who comes to me and says "OK, I'm buying one of these things today, what should I do?" Not buying one is not an option for him. He's not interested in the added friction of the known DRM circumvention techniques (Jhymn or burn-to-CD, redigitize) or the added cost that a full CD adds to the price of the one song he could normally pay 99 cents for.

      Now, there are plenty of analogies here that I'm sure you can come up with to make me looks stupid. Your kid is going to do drugs regardless of what you say, so give up on stopping him or her and get them focused on doing the less dangerous drugs. But, I'd argue that you could also point to the fact that kids are having unprotected sex. You can continue to tell your kids that you don't agree with that choice and try to get them to change their minds. But, do you do that to the exclusion of offering them condoms so that, in the event they don't heed your advice, at least their protecting themselves from prematurely becoming parents or contracting some sort of STD?


      • Don't buy it

        I could see contemplating compromise if there were no alternatives, but you have plenty of good alternatives available to you today. Don't buy music as online downloads if they contain DRM. Period. Buy your music in another format that contains no DRM and rip it yourself. Economic pressure is the only thing that's going to hold back DRM.
        tic swayback