The Issue with DRM

January 30, 2007 at 01:43 AM | categories: python, oldblog | View Comments

It's just struck me that there is an issue with DRM that goes to the core of the way the open source and free software movements run, but not in the way that you might expect. In the following, please read DRM to mean "digital restrictions enforcement", since that's largely all the people who say they need DRM are really thinking about. And whilst we're at it, what should a public broadcaster's policy be? (article is relatively long, so most of it is after the fold)

Essentially, there are two schools of thought with regard to copy protection:
  • Let the user act responsibly. Apply a license to the content, but expect the user to be good and adhere to the spirit of copy protection and not to make copies. Sites like emusic and a growing number of others essentially work this way. It seems also to be a model kinda applied in myspace, where music is littered everywhere, but some musicians do seem to be able to use this as a way to promote their music - as an enabler for creating income. Is content copied? By definition it will be, perhaps even by accident, largely because it's so easy to accidentally copy content.
  • The other school of thought assumes that there are a sufficient number of malicious users out there able to lead the good user astray. That content needs to have a mechanism to enforce its protection.
Which is right? Altruistic people tend to think/hope the majority of people are in the first camp. The less altruistic amongst us would be pessimistic and think the world is generally in camp 2. Now if you allow people to choose between these two you will get a preference for one or the other. Zipf distributions of everything prove that. However, if there isn't choice involved, and its something inherent, you can expect a bell curve. Essentially you have a bell curve of likelihood of the average user to engage in an activity that is not necessarily directly financially beneficial to the originator.

Before carrying on though, lets step to the next stage regarding the equivalent with open source and free software. There are two basic premises in the open source and free software world.

  • One school of thought is to trust the developer. Release your code under a license that allows the recipient to do almost whatever they want with it, but trust them to do the same, or something equivalent. It tends to be used by developers for a number of different reasons, but among them two commons ones jump out: a) "I don't want to go chasing people for infringement, since there's enough out there already anyway" b) "I believe that developers should have the freedom to choose the license for their own code". This school of thinking is typified by the BSD style licenses and similar that actually power much of the code that runs web.
  • The other school of though essentially says "the choice of being able to license code under a non-free license is not an acceptable choice". In this scenario, the most common example is this: if you create derivative works of this code, then your code must also be licensed under the same license as this code. Essentially this says that developers cannot, generally speaking, be trusted, and must be co-erced into releasing their code as free. That's a very gross way of stating it and massively simplifies the issue, and might not be how you view it, but it is essentially how this works in practice.

    There are some more subtle versions of this as well, which aren't quite as restrictive, but fall into this camp. The most prevalent license of this type is the GPL. Sometimes the choice of using the GPL comes from the fear that some unknown developer will come along, take their code, close it and make a fortune, without sharing either code or even revenue.

Essentially the same question arises - which group is right ? Well unlike the world of unprotected content, we've found after 30 years of BSD-stye open source and free software. One thing we do find is there is a bias here. In both groups the spirit and letter of the license gets broken. In the case of the GPL it's more often the letter, in the case of BSD it's more often the spirit (even then with a BSD license it's a general spirit of hoping for rather than requiring collaboration rather than closing code).

ie at the end of the day, people generally appear to want to do the right thing by those who gave them something. ie People can generally be trusted. This personally gives me some hope for the future, and also the GPL/BSD issue also points to me to a future.

  • There will always be people who believe that those who recieve their content must be forced to follow the license or the spirit of the license. In the case of code, this means the free software movement appear to believe that developers should be compelled to release their code and compelled by a license given the weight of law. I have a certain sympathy towards this group. In the case of non-code content (eg music, video, audio) there will always be those who believe that they have to use mechanisms that actively prevent the recipient from breaching the license using some for of restrictions enforcement. (I wonder if I'll get lynched for putting DRM & the GPL in a similar place due to neither group really trusting the recipients to "do the right thing"... whatever that means)
  • There will however also be those who believe that recipients of their content can largely be trusted to follow the license and the spirit of the license. In the case of code, this means that the BSD-style open source developer will give their code out freely, largely unrestricted, and trust that the recipient will treat that with respect. In the case of non-code-content, this is the scenario where you release the content as is, or perhaps tagged or watermarked with its license, but nonetheless restriction free.
An interesting sidepoint here is that the strongest proponents for a "trust the consumer" model, is actually the same group that has the strongest proponents for the "we can't trust the developer" model. However, last time I looked developers and consumers are the same people, and can either be trusted or they can't which is it?

The real point though is that in the end content falls into 2 sets of 2 camps:

  • Stuff you want to enjoy and everything else
  • Stuff that is (and I suspect will continue to be) DRMd and everything else.
Unfortunately these are never likely to be clean sets. You can almost guarantee that many members of the audience will be interested in Stuff they really want but is also DRMd. And yes, on average, people only put up with any restriction, until it becomes too irksome. If the restriction becomes too irksome, then people will tend to seek something in the more trusting camp. The same applies with open source/free software vs proprietary software as well. If the restrictions are too irksome people seek something more trusting. You even see BSD people reimplementing from scratch systems that perform the same function as a GPL one simply to avoid the GPL licence restrictions.

Furthermore, even people implementing DRM systems for Vista seem to understand this. They realise that it is too irksome to require everyone upgrade their monitors merely to watch content. As a result they merely require the OS to downgrade the content for playback. Is this sufficiently non-irksome? We're about to find out.

Given this, we have a problem. Unlike software where you can find something that performs the same function, it is very difficult to find a replacement for certain things. There will only ever be one Superman Returns (aside from various edits). There will only ever be one Spiderman 2. There will only ever be one version of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (thank heavens). Those things exist. They are enjoyed.

Whilst we can expect people to use open source and free software versions of applications they know and love (after all there's good reason to do so), you can't expect everyone to give up the next Harry Potter or One Night at the Museum, and so on. If the restrictions of use placed on the media are too odious then people simply will not buy, but if they're light touch, and people can use them on their OS of choice, then people will buy.

This is a hard thing for many people to listen to: restrictions enforcement will not go away until it is no longer economically viable to keep technically and legally (as in enforcing legally things like anti-circumvention laws) viable.

So the harder thing is this: unless people can enjoy such content on free and open source operating systems, like Ubuntu, then Ubuntu's number one bug will likely never be quashed by free and open source software - in the same way not all software is GPL. (Apple might achieve it though, given long enough). For example, do you know of a DVD player for Linux that is legally licensed? Yes, you can play back DVDs you've bought in the shop on Linux, but do you know of a legally licensed DVD player? No? Just how old are DVDs again? (Wikipedia claims 1995)

Also, whilst I might personally prefer it to be signifcantly sooner, I suspect DRM (or rather DRE) will not actually completely disappear for up to 2, maybe even 3 decades... What then - how do you explain to a 2 year old why their copy of Happy Feet won't play on your system?

So, how should a public broadcaster deal with this issue - especially when facing the lack of a cross platform restrictions enforcement system? Tough question. (Note, I don't set any policy, I can have an opinion, and provide options, but I don't set any policy. I am curious as to people's thoughts however!

blog comments powered by Disqus