DRM is Here to Stay

Tuesday May 8th 2007 by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
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Techies make a lot of noise about its negative effects, but digital rights management still has plenty of fans.

Overall, I’m a pretty optimistic kind of guy. I generally believe that things will turn out for the best in the long run. But no matter how optimistic I’m feeling on a particular day, I just can’t see a future where all digital content is set free and DRM (Digital Rights Management) becomes a thing of the past. True, some content will be set free from the digital shackles, but there will always be content that’s secured by DRM in one form or another.

Although schemes to control duplication of software have been around since the 1970s, over the past decade companies have been increasing their use of DRM to protect digital content from duplication. An early example of DRM is the Content Scrambling System used on DVD movies which was introduced around 1996. Since then music and movie studios have enthusiastically embraced DRM, using it to protect all kinds of media across numerous platforms (CDs, DVDs, HD-DVD, Blu-ray, web downloads, pay-per-view movies, and TiVo recordings are just a few of the many examples of how DRM is used).

Many believe that DRM exists solely to prevent pirates from making perfect copies of digital media and selling this off for a profit. To be honest, while this might have been the goal of DRM in the beginning, I’m pretty sure that the scheme has experienced significant “feature creep” since its inception. Despite nearly a decade of DRM, you can still find and download pretty much anything you want. Movies, music, audiobooks, you name it. In fact, if the goal of DRM was to prevent piracy, it’s failed —- and failed dismally.

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When I look at the way that the music industry and the movie studios are using DRM, I don’t see a secure digital lock designed to keep the pirates at bay. Instead I see it as likened to a chastity belt. Rather than being truly secure, DRM is more of a symbolic security system that’s designed to prevent casual wrongdoing, but which is useless against any kind of serious attack. If an individual isn’t motivated to defeat the lock, then the system works. If an individual is determined, then the security of the lock depends on how motivated the individual is to get the better of it.

There are other potential upsides to having a system of DRM, even if it is weak and imperfect. This is because it acts as a stumbling block that gets in the way of average users casually distributing copyrighted content. Stop a good kid turning bad and all that. How effective is DRM at doing this? Who knows, but you can be sure that the effect is small given that “ripping” CDs and now DVDs is becoming commonplace.

To show just how determined hackers can be to bypass RM, take for example the AACS (Advanced Access Content System) access restriction scheme used to secure high-definition movies. This is a very tough, high-tech scheme that took many years and millions of dollars to develop, but hackers armed with little more than memory dumps and a lot of patience found weaknesses in the system within days, and came out with working hacks within weeks.

So, why, despite being fundamentally flawed, is DRM here to stay? Well, first off, DRM is big business. Just because it doesn’t work doesn’t mean that everyone involved is going to give up, shut up shop and move on to something else. As technology improves and computer power grows, the amount of processing power that can be eroded by DRM increases too, which means that a technique that may not be feasible today because it’s too slow and clumsy, might be practical in the future. Technology moves on and DRM is no different. The only drawback to this forward motion is that DRM will continue to become more and more of a nuisance for the average user.

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Another reason that DRM will continue to exist is that there are many businesses built upon a foundation of DRM. Subscription-based music services and online pay-per-view movies all rely on DRM and they are unlikely to be set free because doing so would jeopardize revenues (not to mention giving pirates cheap and easy access to content).

A few weeks ago EMI made took a bold step and offered its music catalog for download in high-quality, DRM-free form. The only catch was that consumers would have to pay extra for the privilege of being free of DRM. While this was welcomed by many consumer groups, some analysts believe that this deal was short-sighted, risky, and could harm EMI’s bottom line. It’s too early to tell what the effect on EMI will be (or on Apple for that matter) but I must admit that I was surprised by how quickly the story sank from public view.

Will consumers pay more (and it's not a "little more," 25 to 30 per cent is a lot more) for higher quality, DRM-free music? Sure, there's a market, but how big is this market? How many people are unhappy with the current state of downloads who will be happy enough now to start buying DRM-free downloads? Some tech communities make a lot of noise about the negative effects of DRM and how it's bad for consumers (and there's no doubt in my mind that it is bad), but the flip-side of that coin is that people are still buying DRMed content. Maybe outside of a small segment of tech-savvy consumers, DRM is all but invisible anyway.

DRM is far from dead.

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