Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/03/03/the_drm_mistake/

The big DRM mistake

It just doesn't make sense...

By Scott Granneman

Posted in Media, 3rd March 2006 11:00 GMT

Comment Digital Rights Managements hurts paying customers, destroys Fair Use rights, renders customers' investments worthless, and can always be defeated. Why are consumers and publishers being forced to use DRM?

One of my favorite magazines is The New Yorker. I've been reading it for years, and it never fails to impress me with its vast subject matter, brilliant writing, and the depth, wit, and attention it brings to important matters. When it was announced over a year ago that The Complete New Yorker: Eighty Years of the Nation's Greatest Magazine would be released on eight DVDs, I immediately put in my pre-order. After it arrived, I took out the first DVD and stuck it in my Linux box, expecting that I could start looking at the collected issues.

No dice. The issues were available as DjVu files. No problem; there are DjVu readers for Linux, and it's an open format. Yet none of them worked. It turned out that The New Yorker added DRM to their DjVu files, turning an open format into a closed, proprietary, encrypted format, and forcing consumers to install the special viewer software included on the first DVD. Of course, that software only works on Windows or Mac OS X, so Linux users are out of luck (and no, it doesn't work under WINE ... believe me, I tried).

Even worse, if you do install the software, and then perform a search using the somewhat klunky search tool built in to the proprietary DjVu reader, you'll soon find yourself in DVD-swapping hell as you jump from issue to issue. It is sheer painful tedium, and takes me back to 1985 when I was using the first Macs. Remember the floppy shuffle, as you inserted floppy 1, then floppy 2, then floppy 1, then floppy 2, then floppy 1, then floppy 2, ad infinitum? Now it's the DVD shuffle, 20 years later. That's progress for you! You could try copying the disks onto your hard drive, but the DVDs are encoded with Macrovision's copy protection scheme, so you can't legally do so.

The final indignity is that, although other DjVu readers provide for text selection, The New Yorker has removed that feature from its DjVu reader. You can print, but you can't select or copy. As a teacher of several technology courses at Washington University in St. Louis, this limitation, frankly, completely sucks. Suppose I want my students to read 10 paragraphs from a New Yorker story that I provide on a password-protected web page. Too bad! I want to copy and paste some sentences into a presentation? Nope! A student expresses an interest in a topic, and I want to send her a New Yorker article via email that would help further her education? No can do.

I finally got so frustrated that I decided to break through The New Yorker's limitations and DRM, both to access the content I wanted to use and to prove to myself that it could be done. I opened up the article I wanted to copy on a Mac OS X machine, and printed it to PDF using the Mac's built-in support for that format (on Windows, I could have used the open source PDFCreator). I then opened the PDF in OCR software, selected the regions I wanted to scan for text, performed the scan, corrected the results, and saved my output to a text file. It took a while, but it worked.

Other folks have come up with strategies for getting around the annoyances I mentioned above. It turns out that it's entirely possible to copy all the DVDs to your hard drive and then make one simple change in the SQLite database. The result? The slow-as-a-turtle, multi-DVD-swapping The New Yorker turns into super-duper fast The New Yorker. Ta-da!

My experience with The Complete New Yorker is not unique. DRM is cropping up, it seems, everywhere, and people are discussing ways of getting around it.

More bad DRM examples

TiVo added DRM allowing TV shows to include a flag that prevents users from storing shows for any length of time. As a TiVo owner who has left some movies on my box for years, waiting for just the right day to watch them, this outrages me. Sure, TiVo said it was a "bug," but that sounds fishy to me, and I don't buy it. Remember: timeshifting is legal. (One solution: get the files off of TiVo, strip the DRM, and save 'em to a hard drive. A better solution: MythTV.)

Apple's successful iTunes Music Store, in addition to forcing users to accept a pretty sonically-limited format with a proprietary DRM scheme called "FairPlay" (using Orwellian language to mask what you're doing is double-plus ungood, Apple). FairPlay limits what you can do with the music you buy, leaving Apple in charge of your music, not you. Want to play a song you purchased from iTMS on a device other than an iPod? Uh-uh. Want to load music onto an iPod using something other than iTunes? Silly boy. Even worse, some universities are now making lectures and classes available using iTMS, a slap in the face to the open nature of learning and education. Sure, you can remove FairPlay's DRM, but you're still left with a music file recorded at a pretty crappy level, and converting it to a more open format only makes it sound worse. The iTunes Music Store isn't the only offender, as a report by the Electronic Frontier Foundation made clear. iTunes is just the most popular, by far. (Solution: Music stores that give you real choice, without DRM.)

The British equivalent to the Oscars is the BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) award. Members of BAFTA are sent "screeners", free DVDs of the movies they're supposed to vote on, so they can view the movies and make judgments. In an effort to prevent the release of those screeners to non-BAFTA members, the DVDs are encrypted to only play on special DVD players that were also sent free to BAFTA members. As you can imagine, this is a royal pain in the posterior for many BAFTA members, who have to hook up special hardware just to watch a few films. In a bit of supreme cosmic irony, the screeners for Steven Spielberg's Munich were encoded for Region One (the US and Canada) instead of Region Two (Europe), so BAFTA members couldn't view the movie to vote on it. Oops.

What are the lessons to learn from DRM?

1. DRM hurts paying customers

Customers have paid for the texts/pictures/music/movies they purchased, and they expect to be able to use them as they'd like. You can argue that they're not really buying the content, they're just buying licenses for that content, but that argument, while technically legal, is facile and doesn't take into account how real human beings think. When a normal person buys a song, he considers it his ... after all, he just paid for it!

Intelligent people can disagree about the economic impact of file sharing - it seems pretty clear to me that it actually encourages sales and awareness of movies, music, and other content - but that's not what I'm talking about here. I'm talking about moving pictures and movies between devices, about transferring files between the many computers I own, and about changing formats as I please.

When I realised I couldn't copy text out of The Complete New Yorker, I felt like a sucker - a sucker that had been conned by the same people to whom I willingly gave my money. As a college instructor, I especially thought of the loss to my students, which brings us to the next objection to DRM.

2. DRM destroys Fair Use rights ...

... unless the consumer is willing to break the law. Thanks to the wonderful DMCA (did you catch my sarcasm?), it's illegal for anyone to break the DRM protecting a file, no matter how trivial it might be to do so, in order to exercise the Fair Use rights that are legally granted to American citizens. Rick Boucher, a Representative in Congress who actually "gets it", had this to say about the DMCA and Fair Use in 2002:

"... section 1201 of the DMCA ... created the new crime of circumvention. Section 1201 (a)(1), for example, prohibits unauthorized access to a work by circumventing an effective technological protection measure used by a copyright owner to control access to a copyrighted work. Because the law does not limit its application to circumvention for the purpose of infringing a copyright, all types of traditionally accepted activities may be at risk. Any action of circumvention without the consent of the copyright owner is made criminal."

So even though a Fair Use exemption is granted for "non-profit educational purposes", I can't really exercise that legal right with The Complete New Yorker, since it would require the commission of a felony to do so. Other uses of Fair Use include, and I'm quoting from the United States Copyright Office, "criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research". If I can't copy the text, that makes criticism or comment incredibly onerous, does it not? And so on. DRM means that Fair Use for the file protected via DRM is at the whim of the file's creator, which flies in the face of the whole idea of Fair Use. We shouldn't have to beg for our Fair Use rights, since that's the whole point of Fair Use!

3. DRM renders customers' investments worthless

DRM means that my investment in The Complete New Yorker will one day be completely worthless, unless the publishers can ensure that they will continue to support their encrypted, crippled version of DjVu for years into the future. Or, should they go out of business or decide to switch to a new format, that they'll either open the code (riiiiight) or provide some sort of conversion mechanism (suuuuure).

TiVo is a different matter, since it's essentially a closed box (although there are ways to get around that). In this, we need to trust that TiVo will not use a forced upgrade to further decrease functionality that was there when the machine was originally purchased. Seeing that the company has already done this once, by adding support for a type of broadcast flag that limits timeshifting, I don't have high hopes that TiVo will do the right thing. Hello, MythTV.

I feel especially sorry for the people that have spent hundreds or even thousands of dollars at the iTunes Music Store. What happens when Apple downgrades iTunes again, further limiting what users can do with the songs they bought? What happens in five years, when Apple moves on to another format? What happens to your music collection when the iPod is no longer de rigueur, and you want to switch to a new portable player? How are you going to get your encrypted AAC files to play on that new device, with something approaching the same level of quality?

DRM means that you have no control over the files on your computer. You can only do what the company supplying you with the DRM'd files want you to do.

4. DRM can be defeated

It may take some time, but all DRM can be defeated. Or rather, as Chris Anderson, the thinker and writer behind The Long Tail contends, "Any protection technology that is really difficult to crack is probably too cumbersome to be accepted by consumers." And anything that is not that cumbersome can be defeated (although so-called "Trusted Computing" is going to make that process a lot harder ... but I think it will eventually be overcome by those determined to get around it). Cory Doctorow put it best when he explained that the only way that DRM can work is if all of the following conditions are met:

Although Cory is talking about music here, the same principles apply to any kind of file that can be protected with DRM. Even if Trusted Computing and Microsoft's vision of DRM'd Word documents and emails comes to fruition, if it's hot enough to protect, it's hot enough for someone looking at it - and someone does need to eventually look at it, or how can it be used? - to copy it by hand.

Of course, some might argue that it's enough that the average Joe can't break the DRM. If that's true, then why use DRM? What's the goal? If the goal is to prevent all unauthorised copies from being made and circulated, then it isn't enough to put up roadblocks; you must seek to lock down your "content" (as a writer, I hate that word) completely. If the goal is just to frustrate users, then why use DRM at all, since you must realize that un-DRM'd copies of your materials are going to circulate? And even if Joe can't break the DRM, he'll eventually figure out how to use a P2P network, or ask his nerd friend for help, and then you've got another unauthorized copy and an upset and now more knowledgeable former customer. What publisher wants that?

DRM has wormed its way into the imaginations of Hollywood, the RIAA, and publishers, and they in turn have convinced the computer industry (who, it must be admitted, needed little convincing) that DRM must be applied and supported throughout their products. To The New Yorker, I'm sure that DRM made lots of sense. In reality, though, it doesn't. DRM has angered this customer (and many others), eviscerated my Fair Use rights, ultimately rendered the money I spent moot, and it can still be copied anyway! Where does that leave the publisher? It sounds to me like we were both - consumer and publisher - sold a bill of goods. Welcome to the future!

This article originally appeared in Security Focus.

Copyright © 2006, SecurityFocus

Scott Granneman is a senior consultant for Bryan Consulting Inc in St Louis. He specialises in internet services and developing Web applications for corporate, educational, and institutional clients.