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April 15, 2004
The Logical Incoherence of Universal DRM
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]
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.
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