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Here we'll explore the nexus of legal rulings, Capitol Hill policy-making, technical standards development, and technological innovation that creates -- and will recreate -- the networked world as we know it. Among the topics we'll touch on: intellectual property conflicts, technical architecture and innovation, the evolution of copyright, private vs. public interests in Net policy-making, lobbying and the law, and more.

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April 15, 2004

The Logical Incoherence of Universal DRM

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Posted by Ernest Miller

Ed Felten has a typically insightful post on his Freedom to Tinker blog concerning the incoherency of universal, transparent digital rights management (A Perfectly Compatible Form of Incompatibility). After all, how can one have such a universal, transparent system when:

The whole point of DRM technology is to prevent people from moving music usefully from point A to point B, at least sometimes. To make DRM work, you have to ensure that not just anybody can build a music player -- otherwise people will build players that don't obey the DRM restrictions you want to connect to the content. DRM, in other words, strives to create incompatibility between the approved devices and uses, and the unapproved ones. Incompatibility isn't an unfortunate side-effect of deficient DRM systems -- it's the goal of DRM.
A perfectly compatible, perfectly transparent DRM system is a logical impossibility. [emphasis in original]

Read on...

Michael Froomkin notes, however, that DRM is simply about technology or code, it is also about law (Ed Felton Explains the DRM Designer's Mindset):

Alas, what Ed leaves out is the attitude of the folks who hire DRM designers. They may know perfectly well that other machines can be built to defeat their systems. But they are prepared to make it all illegal (pace DMCA), and use the courts and the cops to spread fear and generally decrease respect for the legal system as it tries to hold back the tide.

I might add that the folks who hire DRM designers are looking for the right legal tools so that they don't really have to rely on the DRM designers. After all, patent law would seem to be adequate to protect patentable versions of DRM. However, patent law is not nearly as long as copyright and, unfortunately, patent law gives rights to the patent holder, not the holder of the copyright in the ostensibly protected work. That is why the DMCA protects the copyright holder, not the creator of the DRM, and lasts indefinitely.

Fundamentally, in the folks-who-fire-DRM-designers mindset, all technology must be subservient to content. Their ultimate goal appears to be repealing the laws of mathematics that permit the Turing Universal Machine.

Typically, frequent IP blog commentator Cypherpunk sees no inconsistencies in the DRM mindset:

I don't see anything contradictory about a DRM-supporting music format being "completely transparent and universal". Universal just means that everyone supports it. No problem there.

Except for the fact that open source can't support DRM systems where discreet encrypted units are sent to masses of consumers. "Universal" in this case means, "those companies that sign licenses." In which case, I'm not sure if there is any technology that isn't universal, as long as you're willing to sign any licensing terms.

How about transparent? Transparent means you don't notice it as long as you're using the music legitimately. What is a legitimate use? It's based on what you agreed to in exchange for being granted access to the music.

See, it is all about licensing. We don't have copyright anymore, we have a contractual licensing regime. You don't notice that you can't make fair use of a work because you don't have fair use rights anymore. Problem solved.

Comments (4) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Big Thoughts


1. Seth Finkelstein on April 15, 2004 6:36 PM writes...

Basically, my view is that is it's not a lot of help to pick at "completely transparent and universal", in that if he said "easy to use and widely deployed", would that word change be a be difference?

John F. Kennedy formally said he was a jelly donut when he was talking about Berlin, but people knew what he meant.

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2. Ernest Miller on April 15, 2004 6:50 PM writes...

Well, it isn't clear to me from his interview that is indeed what he meant. "Universal" DRM is not even close to meaning "widely deployed" DRM in the era of open source software.

Again, "transparent" DRM and "easy to use" DRM are not quite the same thing. After all, isn't most DRM today "easy to use" as long as you don't try to do something the DRM doesn't want you to do? iTunes is easy to use, as long as you only want to authorize 3 or less computers.

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3. AdamThomas on April 15, 2004 7:33 PM writes...

On an (Un)related topic:

JFK was no donut

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4. Seth Finkelstein on April 15, 2004 7:39 PM writes...

Just a guess, but I suspect if someone created a DRM which did what he wanted in terms of user features, but only worked on Windows, Mac, and Linux with proprietary kernel modules (and applicances), he would not be concerned with lack of Turing-Equivalence. Just a guess.

I try to be charitable toward business jargon, and assume they're not utter idiots (sometimes this assumption fails, of course, but I hope it's a good starting point :-))

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