Why DRM transparency is good for users and vendors alike

As I've written many many times, digital rights management technology (DRM, also known as C.R.
Written by David Berlind, Inactive

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.

Editorial standards