Don't listen to the doomsayers – DRM is headed for the historical dustbin, says Doctorow

Surprising signs of hope, and a few of danger

Cory Doctorow
DRM scourge ... Cory Doctorow

Interview In 2015, writer and activist Cory Doctorow told the DEF CON hacking conference that he was rejoining the EFF on a new campaign to eliminate digital rights management regulations by 2025.

The campaign got off to an interesting start. Legal cases against the rights of farmers to repair their own tractors are being fought by John Deere and others, Lexmark is back arguing in the courts over its printer cartridges, and security researchers are still in limbo after the collapse of the Wassenaar Arrangement.

To make life more interesting there have been political upsets aplenty, controversial moves on the issue by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), and Doctorow himself has abandoned living in the UK and moved back to the continent of his birth.

We caught up in San Francisco at the launch of his latest dystopian science fiction blockbuster Walkaway, and asked him how the anti-DRM campaign is going.

El Reg: So, since the announcement of the anti-DRM campaign we've seen a lot of political and economic changes. Is that ten-year timeline still realistic?

Doctorow: I think so. There have been a couple of shifts that I didn't anticipate that have been rather good. One is that farmers and the Digital Right To Repair Coalition have done brilliantly and have a message which is extremely resonant with the political right as well as the political left.

I always thought that one of the reasons that we would carry the day is that one of the key arguments against DRM is a property rights argument and there are people for whom that settles all questions. I was just on the Hill meeting with staffers and think tank people and on the political right there's a lot of motion there.

The other thing that's really interesting is that the entertainment industry is starting to figure out that the gadget sector and embedded systems people are going to scuttle their good thing.

In what way?

In the sense that people thought DRM on DVDs and video games was fairly trivial. But when it's tractors and insulin pumps and voting machines, it starts to take on an urgency.

I had a remarkable thing happen when I was arguing about this with a whole group of people. It became very apparent that the automotive thing in particular was really divisive. Someone in the entertainment industry suggested that rather than reform the Digital Millennium Copyright Act [DMCA], we just have the Department of Transport make it a crime to put DRM on cars, and the embedded systems people were like "WAIT, WHAT?"

I think that that's a division which will only become more pronounced. The entertainment industry feels very proprietary towards laws that protect DRM. They really feel that they lobbied for and bought these laws in order to protect the business model they envisioned.

For these latecomer upstarts to turn up and stretch and distort these laws out of proportion has really exposed one of the natural cracks in copyright altogether. One of the strengths of copyright as a movement is that it can build these big tents of authors and artists. But that's also a source of division because they have different interests. Those interests can be played against each other.

I saw this at the World Intellectual Property Organization where you'd have everyone in the entertainment industry speaking as one, but then the performer's representatives would say that they want a royalty not just for the composer but for the performer – and all the broadcasters were like, "We're not with those people."

The W3C has its own take on this of course. Sir Tim Berners-Lee was an early supporter of DRM but is increasingly being pushed against on the topic. How is that developing?

That's an open question but it has gone better than I thought it would. We've just had seemingly the final vote on whether the W3C would publish Encrypted Media Extensions as a spec without any protections for accessibility or security researchers and so on, which I think was a very good compromise.

The W3C's position was that we only want to make DRM as a result of the DMCA, but we don't like those laws. So we said OK, let's make those laws go away and make all W3C members promise to take those laws off the table.

The argument from the W3C executive was: "You're paranoid; this is only about making a technical protection measure and not about invoking the laws for things that have nothing to do with piracy." So we said just invoke these systems for copyright infringement then, but none of the members would go for it.

We built a very large and diverse coalition. The W3C is now in the position that the consensus-orientated process which historically has led to not going to a vote until all sides agree after a series of compromises hasn't happened. Now they have gone to a vote that's nothing like that, there's no credible way it could be described as a consensus.

I can't discuss the outcome of the vote because it's member confidential, but in the past the W3C executives have waived that confidentiality and released the numbers and I wonder if they'll do that this time. My view is that it's a very interesting outcome; it would be really good to have those numbers out in the public domain.

So what are the next steps on DRM? What's coming up?

Well, there's the W3C vote coming to an outcome. We are talking to people in different countries where there is no law for DRM because they can become exporters of DRM breaking tools. There are DRM dimes to be made breaking DRM dollars.

If there's anything good that might come of Brexit, it's that the UK will renegotiate and reevaluate its relationship to the EU Copyright Directive and other agreements. The UK enjoys a really interesting market position if it wants to be the only nation in the region that makes, exports, and supports DRM-breaking tools.

You famously left the UK because you felt the Tory government was turning it into a playground of corrupt elites. Now we've had Brexit and Donald Trump has been elected US president, so how's that working out for you?

If I've come to realize something in the years since, it's that this is really a global phenomenon.

Before I left the UK my friends from Poland and Hungary and Turkey were like, "Don't think this isn't going to happen in the UK, this is not a disease of underdeveloped countries or countries that don't have democratic fundamentals."

It's the same phenomenon you're seeing everywhere. I think of Trump as being something like a Pearl Harbor; this thing that had set the whole world on fire except America and now it has come to America too. ®


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