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August 24, 2007
Is Private DRM Public Failure?
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.
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