21 March 2007

Fresh Thoughts on DRM

One of the problems with the DRM battle is that it tends to get into a rut: the same old arguments for and against are trotted out. For those of us who care, it's a necessary price to pay for telling it as it is, but for onlookers, it's just plain boring.

That's what makes this piece, which reports on the recent conference "Copyright, DRM Technologies, and Consumer Protection", at UC Berkeley, quite simply the most interesting writing on DRM that I've come across for ages: as well as explaining the old arguments well, it includes a couple of new thoughts:

One good point a few panelists made is that successful DRM is likely to weaken the user's privacy. All DRM prevents computers and media devices from sharing files freely with each other. But in order to merely curb freedom, rather than end it entirely, DRM must identify which files can be shared and which can't, and which methods of sharing are permissible. The more sophisticated this process of determination becomes, the more it is necessary for devices to analyze information about the files in complex ways. The burden of this analysis will often be too great to implement in typical consumer electronics — so instead the data will be sent to an online server, which will figure out your rights and tell the client device what to do. But step back and consider where this is going: devices all over your house, sending information about your viewing and listening habits to a central server. Is this data certain to be subpoena-able someday? You bet. It probably already is.

Another point (made by Peter Swire among others) was the computer security implications of running DRM. The code in a DRM system must be a black box: it cannot be open source, because if the user could understand and change it, she could disable it and copy her files without restriction. But if the code is opaque, it cannot be examined for security flaws — and in fact, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act makes it illegal to even attempt such an examination in most circumstances. Basically, you have to run this code, for even if you are technically capable of modifying it, doing so would be illegal. (In response to this situation, Jim Blandy proposed a new slogan: "It's my computer, damn it!")

I believe that now is a critical moment in the fight against DRM: if we don't scotch the snake soon, it will turn into a hydra. To win, we need to convince "ordinary" people that DRM is mad, bad and dangerous to use; the points raised above could well prove important additions to the anti-DRM armoury.


Anonymous said...

"We have scotched the snake, not killed it." Macbeth

Wouldn't you rather kill it?

Glyn Moody said...

Well, yes, but we live in an imperfect world....

Anonymous said...

A nice double entendre. Bravo !