EOF - If You Don't Believe in DRM, It Can't Hurt You

by Don Marti

The last time I talked with Martin Fink, HP's Vice President of Linux, the problem on his mind was digital rights management (DRM) and if it could ever be compatible with free software. It's a puzzling question, but Martin, like everyone else in the Linux business, can find better problems to work on.

DRM is any technology that selectively disables features or affordances of a program or device in order to control use of a copy of information by the owner or authorized user of the copy. Think “unrippable” CDs for the home market or, on the office side, e-mail software that lets someone who sends you mail disable your forward or print function.

A coin-operated jukebox is not DRM, and chmod 600 my-secret-file.txt on a multiuser system is not DRM. Those technologies exclude only unauthorized users. DRM starts when the technology begins nit-picking about what you can do. For example, “play only on example.com's media player” is DRM. Certainly such a system helps example.com hang onto its customers, but there's no demand for it.

In this crazy business of ours, every once in a while, companies go into a frenzy to sell technology that doesn't work to customers who don't want it. In the 1990s, did customers want overpriced UNIX from bickering vendors or stable-any-day-we-promise Windows NT? Sorry, neither one works for us. Support Linux, please. Or on-line services. AOL or Compuserve? We'll take the Internet, thanks.

When I met Intel VP Donald Whiteside a while back, he summed up the IT industry party line on DRM. IT companies have to do DRM in order to work with the “consumer electronics”, movie and record companies who put together media standards. He said computer DVD drives are so locked down because the DVD Copy Control Association would have refused to license the DVD format for computer drives otherwise.

Mr Whiteside is too modest about the IT industry's negotiating position. People started shifting their leisure time from big-budget TV productions to the slow-loading, frustrating Internet long before the big entertainment industry made it there. And the big copyright holders make pie-in-the-sky DRM demands, but a little Internet Movie Database search of actual DVD release dates show a different story in the real world.

The five top grossing movies for 1998, before the DVD descrambling story broke, took an average of 367 days after first release to come out in DVD format. By 2000, disinfecting DVDs was common knowledge in tech circles, but the top five movies for 2000 actually came out sooner after theatrical release—252 days.

The story is the same for before and after the “DVD X Copy” application for Microsoft Windows—from 190 days in 2002, before it came out, to 160 days during 2003 when it was available. Yes, the movie industry has an infringement problem, and they might even be releasing DVDs sooner than they would want in order to compete with infringing copies. But the DRM features of the DVD itself are a pointless sideshow.

The other hyped-up use for DRM is at the office. Deploy DRM and you can keep employees from forwarding embarrassing e-mail to the media. That sounds like the answer to network-illiterate managers' prayers, but if it's juicy enough to leak, it's juicy enough to write down and retype. Bill Gates of Microsoft, in an interview with gizmodo.com, tried to pitch DRM using the example of an HIV test result, which is literally one bit of information. If you hired someone untrustworthy enough to leak that but unable to remember it, you don't need DRM, you need to fix your hiring process.

When I talk to working IT professionals, the trend is to open up information “behind the firewall” at a company—not lock it down. People aren't worried about how to DRM-ize everything. Instead, I'm seeing enterprise Wikis. “Enterprise Wiki” still sounds funny, but companies with lots of trade secrets are rolling them out. “Edit this Page” adds value, and DRM has the opposite effect.

Even the mighty US Army is adopting discussion-friendly social software. Doc Searls sent me a link to Dan Baum's great New Yorker article about Companycommand.com and Platoonleader.org, which two Army captains started as a side project to exchange advice outside the normal channels. The Army promoted them and brought the sites in-house.

What if I'm wrong, DRM really is the Next Big Thing, and the herd of IT vendors is right for the first time in history? Network effects practically guarantee that one DRM system will be a global standard. Picking the winner, though, depends on unpredictable DRM-circumvention efforts by security researchers worldwide.

And when even a PC operating system can be an “essential facility” to be regulated on antitrust grounds, DRM that actually worked would be too much power for governments to let anyone else have. Win the DRM war, and the prize is becoming a regulated industry like the pre-breakup AT&T. Martin Fink doesn't want Linux users to miss the DRM boat. I'll miss that ship of fools any day.

Resources for this article: /article/8127.

Don Marti is editor in chief of Linux Journal.

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