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August 24, 2007

Is Private DRM Public Failure?

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

Problem: you bought content locked in a DRM box but the entity that sold it to you went out of business. You now have the electronic equivalent of a paperweight.

DRM is usually sold in packages by very large companies that tend not to go out of business, like Sony, or Microsoft, or Google. And yet, though Google remains in business, customers who bought its DRM-encumbered movies are now being left high and dry as the company closes its Google Video Store.

Let's leave aside the issue of Google's gaffe and the irate customers that prompted an apology and improved compensation offer. I want to address a point repeatedly raised by copyfighters (see for example, Ken Fisher on ars): that these failures are an argument against DRM-based business models.

There's a good point to be made here - peoples' legal content purchases ought not to be effectively yanked out of their homes just because a corporation goes belly-up or "exits the business." But this is remarkably like what happens when you purchase a physical good whose manufacturer ceases operation or discontinues the line. Parts and services become increasingly hard to get and the value of your purchase tends to go down steeply (antique and collector value notwithstanding). You can't buy leaded gasoline generally in the US anymore - if that's what it takes to power your car you are likely out of luck.

Furthermore, it seems to me that the issue here is not simply "DRM bad", however much I take that as an article of faith. The issue is that private holding of DRM keys and controls is potentially risky for consumers. There are other structures that could be set up to mitigate these risks. For example, a non-profit or quasi-governmental organization could become the repository for the keys and codes needed to keep locked content viable. Imagine a kind of Wayback Machine for DRM, if you will. Or a CERT for content keys. There might be a legal mandate to turn over the necessary data to such an organization as part of the shutting down process; or companies might do so voluntarily to avoid the kind of shame and opprobrium that Google got.

Part of any good model should be end-of-life planning. That we haven't done this for DRM-encumbered content is a flaw in our own planning, not necessarily a declaration that such planning is impossible.

Comments (8) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Big Thoughts


1. rkillings on August 24, 2007 6:15 PM writes...

"... avoid the kind of shame and approbation that Google got"

I think you meant 'opprobrium'. Approbation is the exact opposite (praise).

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2. Michael R. Bernstein on August 24, 2007 6:18 PM writes...

The problem is that government keeps trying to outsource this sort of thing to 'trusted 3rd parties' that are frequently extremely un-trust-worthy.

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3. Branko Collin on August 24, 2007 8:30 PM writes...

The comparison is flawed. There is no end of life to DRM-ed content, so why should we plan for it?

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4. Mars on August 25, 2007 2:54 PM writes...

I totally agree with you, Alan, on the fact that purchasing a digital content is the same as when you buy a tangible one. There are risks, so if the company goes out of business, well it is too bad for you! I am totally pro-DRM but I do not think that I would like them to go into the public area, because I don't think that an harmonization would be possible for all types of contents. DRM must be flexible and serve the artists...

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5. Nix on August 26, 2007 9:22 AM writes...

Sorry, but I just can't understand your reasoning - the company that produced the product you're using went out of business so the product automatically becomes unusable? Wrong! Judging by your logic my old PC should have stopped working few years ago, because they don't even provide support for the hardware in question anymore and the MB producer has even bankrupted. Well, it still works, you know. Likewise, just because a movie company has went out of business your movies that you have legally bought shouldn't become simply digital trash. And your car doesn't require gasoline with lead - the motor does - simply upgrade the old one and you'll be able to drive your now lead-free car. How does this relate to DRM? Obviously, DRM shouldn't have been introduced and forced in the first place (nor should it be kept through some semi-public organisation) and, secondly, there must be a legal way to de-DRM it. And talking about the good old DRM is akin key to your house - in case of DRM the key to your house belongs to some third party, which is kind enough to let you in, when you beg them, and protects the key itself from others (including you), but may do whatever they want with it, like giving to, say, person X, but do/can you trust them and do you even like the idea about not owning the key to your own house?
P.S. Sorry, if there are any mistakes, English isn't my native language.

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6. Nix on August 26, 2007 9:27 AM writes...

Re-read it more than once before posting, but still missed at least one error - instead of "like giving to, say, person X" it should be "like giving it to, say, person X".

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7. drwex on August 27, 2007 8:19 AM writes...

rkillings: You're right. How embarrassing. Fixed now.

Branko: I wasn't suggesting that DRMed content have an end of life, but that DRM itself have such a thing. Even if a company stays in business, various DRM algorithms and models of use will become obsolete.

Mars: I agree with you that DRM use models should be more flexible. In particular, I don't see any current uses of DRM that are pro-Artist. I think this is clear from observing all the artists who release material unencumbered by DRM. It is only the very large corporations that benefit from DRM.

Nix: I appreciate your comments, but the way DRM is currently deployed it is not always independent of the seller. iTunes, DVRs, and many other products use a protocol that requires them to check a central server or registry for authorization to decrypt certain content. When the company that runs those servers shuts down, your content will not play. I also agree that it would be nice if it were possible for content owners (that would be us, the legal purchasers) to de-DRM things, but this is expressly forbidden by law now.

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8. Mars on August 27, 2007 3:27 PM writes...

I just thought, Nix, that digital contents should not be treated differently than tangible ones. There should be a lifetime attached to it. Which means, I do think that you should be able to purchase, then sell again the content if you want, with some limits, all in the best interest of the artist. Not so that he/she can make more money, but just to be considered as an artist. I don't believe in a totally open system where all the contents could be free of use, and everybody would respect everybody. I believe in regulations, even if DRM are not perfect. They are a starting point...

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