Galactic Interactions

DRM: The sky does fall

DRM stands for “digital restrictions management”. (Those who are in the business of peddling it as something positive will tell you it’s “digital rights management,” but the former is really a better descriptive name.) It is software that prevents you from using some other software or digital files on your computer unless you meet certain criteria.

DRM has actually been with us for a long time. Back in the 1980′s, games and other software you could buy for your Apple II or Commodore 64 came with “copy protection.” These were tricks that the software publishers would use to make it difficult to copy the disks. The computers hadn’t been designed to support this, so typically copy protection relied on writing key bits of data to parts of the disk that the hardware wasn’t documented to be able to read, or by putting disk errors that had to be there for the software to run. Sometimes these things would break if new versions of the software came out, and sometimes they would actually damage the disk drives or, at least, cause more wear than the same amount of normal use would. This also meant you couldn’t back up the software you’ve purchased. The result: lots and lots of “backup” and “archival” programs were written to facilitate copying of these programs. Copy protection was a hassle for legitimate users, but did not really stop software piracy at all. Eventually, it more or less fell out of favor.

Nowadays its back, and it’s still causing headaches and problems for legitimate users.

A few years ago, a much-ballyhooed new online store for roleplaying games, Drive-Thru RPG opened up amidst a storm of controversy. The controversy? They were selling Adobe PDFs using Adobe’s DRM scheme. This meant that you had to register the computer you were going to read the PDFs on with an Adobe server, and it wouldn’t be possible (without somebody cracking the the DRM scheme) to read them on unregistered computers. You would only be allowed to read them on a finite number (five, if memory serves) of computers. Many of us, myself included, raised a huge hue and cry. DRM would be cracked, because it always is. Meanwhile, those who didn’t look for the cracks were being at best inconvenienced, and at worst throwing their money away for a product that would inevitably be broken.

The counter-argument was that publishers were too nervous to release their publications as PDFs without some sort of assurance that they were protected from the wholesale copying that digital files makes easy. What’s more, people said that the alarmists like me who were proclaiming that DRM was evil were chicken littles, trying to scare people with unrealistic fears. Sure, they said, if they had to register with DTRPG, perhaps that was scary because it was a new and small outfit. But the DRM was registered with Adobe, and big companies like that (or like, say, Pan Am) never go out of business and will always be around.

Oh, and those of us on OSes that didn’t have a client that supported the DRM scheme, or who merely wanted to use PDF readers other than the one that supported the DRM, weren’t worth consideration.

What happened? Well, the next version of Adobe’s Acrobat Reader didn’t support Adobe’s own DRM! DTRPG quietly moved to a “watermarking” scheme and removed technical restrictions on copying their files. The sky did fall in exactly the way we were all predicting; fortunately, DTRPG didn’t screw over their customers.

DRM simply doesn’t work. Every technical restriction that companies have come up with has been worked around, and often at far lower cost than it cost to develop the DRM in the first place. And, it does cause a lot of the problems its detractors claim it will cause. Several other examples.

  • Commercial DVDs are almost all encrypted with a scheme called CSS; only licensed DVD players (which does not include any open source software such as that used by Linux users like myself) are allowed to implement decoding of this. That is, until a kid in Norway figured out how to crack DVDCSS with an algorithm short enough to be, among other things, printed on a T-shirt. Thanks to an evil law in the USA known as the “DMCA”, it is illegal for Linux users to “traffic in” (including download) the dvdcss software that lets them watch legally purchased DVDs that they legitimately own on their own computer systems. What’s more, this dvdcss software is not needed to copy DVDs! All it does is prevent watching them, even watching legitimate DVDs! And it doesn’t even do that effectively. It’s a pain in the butt and a law that makes many folks like me criminals for something that there’s no benefit in preventing anyway, and which also wasn’t even effective.

  • (Indeed, the mere fact that there are tracks— the “FBI” warning and sometimes previews— on DVDs that you can’t skip is nuts. “Operation prevented by disc” or some such is something you see if you try to skip to the menu or fastforward through the front matter on many DVDs. Is this reasonable? You own a DVD, and every time you watch it you have to sit through the same old crap. Why shouldn’t your DVD player do what you tell it to? Well, when I run on Linux, it does, because the Linux players aren’t licensed and thus don’t have to obey the restrictions that the disk asks them to. Notice how the open-source community-produced software is more functional than the high-end DVD players blessed by the movie industry….)

  • Showing that they are incapable of learning from past rectal defilade, the movie industry is working on DRM schemes for next-generation DVD formats. Unsurprisingly, they are losing this arms race long before most of us have HD-DVD or Blu-Ray players. But the rhetoric abouts “protecting intellectual property” continues.

  • There was a hue and cry among the techno-nerds who play attention when Google (“Don’t Be Evil” — oops) decided to use DRM with Google Video. “But,” others will say, “surely users should know they have to compromise with the needs of content producers?” My answer: no more than my need to have my nose unbroken should be compromised with your need to stamp on my face. What’s more, it’s clear that DRM doesn’t practically do anything for content producers. And, guess what: here, too, the sky fell. Those videos that people were able to “download to own” will shortly no longer work thanks to Google stopping licensing server support for their DRM. People keep buying the line that DRM is a great thing because without it movie producers would never be able to release their movies at all, and as such we should be so happy that DRM is giving us so much! Isn’t it great to be able to download movies? The real question is, why the hell do people pay to download things that they won’t actually be able to decide how to use?

  • This is perhaps the best one of all. People who are using recent versions of Windows may or may not realize that they have to “phone home” to make sure they’re legitimate so that they will continue to have full functionality. That’s scary enough as it is, but the counter-argument is, well, Microsoft needs to protect their “intellectual property,” and they are a big company that won’t go anywhere any time soon. Of course, if Microsoft’s license servers go down, suddenly everybody’s copy of Windows thinks that it is an illegitimate copy, and runs in reduced functionality. This isn’t a game, this isn’t even your ability to watch DVDs, it isn’t a single application, this is the very operating system on which people depend to do everything on their computers. (That is, people think it’s their computers; increasingly, they have ceded control of their computers to central authorities.) This would never have been an issue if it hadn’t been for Microsoft’s “Phone Home” DRM scheme they put in place to “protect” their “intellectual property.” The lesson here should be that you really want to be running an open source operating system on as many of your computers as possible, but also that you really shouldn’t trust Microsoft if you can at all avoid it.

Want to keep abreast of industry shenanigans regarding DRM? It should be obvious from all the links above that following Boing Boing can help. There’s a lot of other stuff on that site, but several of the bloggers there keep a sharp eye out for this stuff, and one (Cory Doctorow) even works (or, at least, has worked) for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Don’t buy the snake oil. When somebody is out there saying that DRM is “necessary” to protect content, and when they are saying that those who warn of the hassles DRM can bring up are overstating their fears, be aware that they are dead wrong on both counts, and that there is a long track-record (including many things I haven’t written here) demonstrating that.

Comments

  1. #1 bigTom
    August 25, 2007

    Rob, I hope you new employers consider that they are paying you first and formost to be an educator. That would mean you could keep up with astronomy (if not do any actual research). And continue to be able to post on new topics. A couple of interesting ones have come to my attention this week:

    The big void. Observations of the CMB, (and distnat galaxies?) are interpreted as saying there is a 1G lightyear void (6-8G LY away) in the direction of of Eridinus. Supposedly this void lacks dark matter,as well as normal mass. If this isn’t some sort of artifact, what does it mean for cosmology?

    The role of Jupiter in (or not) protecting the earth from impacts. Back in 94 it was claimed our impact rate would be three or four orders of magnitude higher, implying a lifeless earth sans Jupiter. The recent study claims Jupiter perturbs nearly as many KBOs into the inner solar system, as it chucks out, but there are some objections to the results as well. If in fact Jupiter is not a major impact protector, that means that alien solar systems without a Jupiter could harbor advanced life.

  2. #2 coturnix
    August 25, 2007

    I second a call for an explanation of the discovery of the big empty space that everyone is buzzing about. I want to hear it from someone who actually knows what he is talking about.

  3. #3 llewelly
    August 25, 2007

    What’s more, it’s clear that DRM doesn’t practically do anything for content producers.

    It provides a heartwarming and comforting belief that the pay-per-copy business model will continue to make them wealthy for the foreseeable future, so long as DRM is used. The fact that DRM does not prevent illegitimate copies is not important; it calms fears, and that is what content producers need. It’s like religion; the fact that it doesn’t work doesn’t matter; it is nonetheless a source of comfort. Anti-DRM fanatics are wrong for the same reason the New Atheist Noise Machine can’t work. Both attack a comforting myth on the grounds that (a) the myth isn’t true, and (b) the comfort provided by the myth requires damaging one’s rational-thinking equipment. But these are small things compared to the heart-warming beauty of the belief that pay-per-copy will remain highly profitable forever more.

  4. #4 Brandon
    August 25, 2007

    People who are using recent versions of Windows may or may not realize that they have to “phone home” to make sure they’re legitimate so that they will continue to have full functionality. That’s scary enough as it is,

    When you install Windows XP, the software explicitly says you have 30 days to register your product. I don’t really see a problem with this. If you don’t have Internet access I think they give you another means of registering it.

    Maybe it’s just me, but “omg 1984″ talk bothers me. I really don’t care if some cubicle junkie in Seattle has my name and address stored in some mammoth database. But I’m weird like that, because frankly, I wouldn’t mind it so much if the government put cameras on every street corner. As long as, say, an egomaniacal president didn’t want unlimited access to our personal information. (but what are the odds of that happening, right?)

    I certainly sympathize with you having limited access to your DVDs. But I don’t see the big deal with giving companies a teensy bit of your personal information if it gives some semblance of security.

    And yes, those FBI warnings at the beginning of movies annoy the crap out of me. What, do pirates need a reminder that copying DVDs is illegal? Why don’t they put up a sign in front of convenience stores that says, “Shoplifting is mean?”

  5. #5 Rob Knop
    August 25, 2007

    But I don’t see the big deal with giving companies a teensy bit of your personal information if it gives some semblance of security.

    Well, that’s a whole ‘nuther issue; of course, most of the time it’s not a teensy bit at all of personal information that get stored on unsecured and regularly-hacked databases. But that is also not at all what I was talking about, so it’s kind of odd that you are questioning what I’m saying with this position. I wasn’t talking about having to give up privacy or personal information; I was talking about practical problems that people have when saddled with DRMed technology.

    Re: DRM being a comforting story for those who want to believe that the pay-for-single-copy business model will continue to last, there may be something to that. But it’s still worth railing against because it causes direct problems for the rest of us, and we’re sacrificing for nothing.

  6. #6 blf
    August 25, 2007

    Another (small) example of DRM lunacy are people who don’t have a DVD player, don’t have a TV, and use Linux to watch DVDs. (As an aside, that’s probably more environmentally friendly simply because less power is consumed (at least).) If it wasn’t possible to use the computer, some of these people would not be buying DVDs, which is (presumably) contrary to what the industry wants. Admittedly, there’s probably only a small number of such people–so the market impact is probably tiny–but they do exist.

  7. #7 llewelly
    August 26, 2007

    Re: DRM being a comforting story for those who want to believe that the pay-for-single-copy business model will continue to last, there may be something to that. But it’s still worth railing against because it causes direct problems for the rest of us, and we’re sacrificing for nothing.

    I am not arguing that people should not rail against DRM. I am making my best guess at what DRM does for content producers. Consumers, as you know, do not need to believe the pay-for-single-copy model will make them wealthy for the foreseeable future.

  8. #8 speedwell
    August 26, 2007

    Yes, BLF, we do exist.

  9. #9 Joseph j7uy5
    August 26, 2007

    Australia just spent $84 million on a nation-wide Internet filtering scheme. A high-school kid cracked it in 30 minutes. Not only that, but he did it is such a way that it still appeared to be functioning, should parents check on it.

  10. #10 Rob Knop
    August 26, 2007

    I resisted DVDs for a long time. The whole “unskippable track” thing really irritated me, plus the approach that the industry was taking (“all your discs are belong to us”) was not a direction I liked.

    The first DVD player I got was for a Linux box, and that was only a few years ago.

    A year or two after that I got a standalone DVD player, so I have to admit that I’ve given in.

    Now I even have a Mac.

  11. #11 Jeb, FCD
    August 26, 2007

    I have a friend whose entire home entertainment system is Mac-based. They buy DVDs, rip them, and post them to the home’s server. No FBI warnings, no restrictions. Their DVR is a lampshade iMac.

    It’s beautiful. And they’re not even serious geeks. They’re just serious about being able to own what they pay for.

  12. #12 Jeb, FCD
    August 26, 2007

    And the interstellar void implications lecture is one I would like to hear/see. What are the implications, what’s the big deal, etc.?

  13. #13 Luna_the_cat
    August 27, 2007

    I hate the DRM. I especially hate the Adobe DRM. I have come to hate Adobe itself, with the kind of broiling subcutaneous volcano of rage which I usually reserve for IBM programmers.

    I bought a whole load of books and technical manuals, as DRM-protected .pdfs. I registered my computer. Some months after this, I bought a new computer and sold my old one. THEN I found out that you actually had to have BOTH computers available to “confirm” your registration of the new computer as a legitimate computer. I contacted Adobe, who said I could get my identity “reset” — this only required about 45 minutes worth of calls to a premium rate line. So they “reset” my identity — and then the files wouldn’t open because, apparently, I was no longer the person who bought the files, as far as the files were concerned. Adobe’s response to my query about how to deal with this problem?

    “Tough. Buy the files again.”

    That was about �300 of reference material down the drain.

    Unfortunately, I didn’t have a choice — I needed some of it, and because I couldn’t be humphing a major weight of computer books with me as I travelled, I needed electronic copies. So I shelled out the money and bought many of them again.

    Some months after that, I had a catastrophic HD crash, which required a new hard drive and a rebuild. Two guesses as to what happened with those .pdfs, and the first guess doesn’t count.

    Same thing again — Adobe “reset” my identity, I still couldn’t open my files, and Adobe frankly didn’t care, in an utterly indifferent way of giving the finger to a customer. In this particular instance, the vendor who had sold me the ebooks went out of his way to let me download them again, so that I didn’t have to pay for them again; many many thanks, Fictionwise.com. Adobe’s response to my complaint — in an email, in so many words: “Yeah. So?”

    I will never, never buy a legitimate DRM’d pdf file again, so long as I live, if there is anything even vaguely appropriate available pirated. I will ALWAYS get pirated pdf’s, of everything now. Screw ‘em. I hate them. They waste my money and my time and they don’t care that they are viciously screwing over legitimate paying customers, so I will in every way possible try to make sure they never see another cent.

  14. #14 Dunc
    September 5, 2007

    The funny thing is that it’s the content providers that are the real Chicken Littles. I’ve got LP records from the early ’80s with the big cassette-tape-as-skull-and-crossbones logo on the inner sleeve, with the slogan “Home taping is killing music!”

    Everyone taped music. Everyone swapped taped music. I’m still waiting for the funeral…

    You own a DVD, and every time you watch it you have to sit through the same old crap.

    In Soviet Russia, DVD watches you.

    Sorry, couldn’t resist it… ;)

  15. #15 Rob Knop
    September 5, 2007

    The “home taping” stuff is sort of like the cellphone movie-clip-”stealing” madness that’s going on right now.

    Last summer the movie industry was in doldrums. People were wondering if the age of the movie theater had passed. Industry execs blamed piracy.

    This year, profits were way up.

    Every few years for the last 25 years (since VCRs became popular), we hear about the “end of movie theaters.”

    The truth is, when most of your movies suck, few people go. But if movies are interesting, people do in fact go.

    Yes, one day, movie theaters may become obselete, but I don’t see that coming any time soon.

    Meanwhile, though, the paranoia is going to have the movie industry joining the music industry in attempting to outlaw the general-purpose computer and the ability of individuals to do what they traditionally were the only ones to have the resources to do.

  16. #16 archgoon
    September 18, 2007

    >>Notice how the open-source community-produced software is more functional than the high-end DVD players blessed by the movie industry….)

    And the local meth lab provides substances not sold by the big-name drug comapanies…

  17. #17 Rob Knop
    September 19, 2007

    archgoon — that is, of course, irrelevant

  18. #18 Patness
    September 22, 2007

    Also would love to hear the lecture on the void in deep space.

    Archgoon – thank you for that enlightening (and patently unhinged) comparison. However, few Linux users operate in countries where the open-source software on their PCs is illegal. For that matter, few developers actually harm or kill people with their software – although they would love to see you love their stuff.

  19. #19 archgoon
    October 2, 2007

    >>archgoon — that is, of course, irrelevant
    No its not.

  20. #20 archgoon
    October 2, 2007

    Patness:

    My pardon. My point was not to compare morally developers of open-source software to meth producers. I was simply annoyed that Rob seemed to be suggesting that the additional functionality of the open-source players was due to them being non-commercial and open-sourced and not because they simply weren’t in restrictive licensing agreements with companies.

    Now as far as whether or not a company is going to develop and sell an unlicensed version of a player (in america at least) using a reversed engineered version of the CSS, their decision process is remarkably similar to that of a drug company deciding to sell illegal drugs. Namely, both can result in incarceration.

    My apologies Patness for the confusion and my poor rhetorical skills.

  21. #21 Rob Knop
    October 2, 2007

    I was simply annoyed that Rob seemed to be suggesting that the additional functionality of the open-source players was due to them being non-commercial and open-sourced and not because they simply weren’t in restrictive licensing agreements with companies.

    Um… the fact that they were just done was what let them not be in restrictive licensing agreements with companies.

    Your analogy is piss-poor and irrelevant because, all discussions of legal drugs aside, meth is an epidemic of addiction in at least the USA. Watching DVDs… well, not quite so harmful. Moreover, while *distributing* an open source DVD player with dvdcss may be illegal (pending various arguments about free speech, etc.), using it is not… unlike meth.

    Additionally, what open source DVD players give you is exactly the same thing that licensed ones do, only with the ability to skip “unskippable” content. Same thing. Meth = not the same thing that big drug companies sell.

    Your analogy is irrelevant.

    It’s a pretty standard tactic to compare free software and reverse-engineered drivers to communism or drug use or child porn or anything else considered scary or illegal, but it’s still just as much empty crap whether you do it or Microsoft does it.

  22. #22 archgoon
    October 2, 2007

    while *distributing* an open source DVD player with dvdcss may be illegal (pending various arguments about free speech, etc.), using it is not…

    Which is why you don’t see commercial solutions to the problem. Glad we could find some common ground.

    Also, again I apologize for the comparison to drug production. I wasn’t thinking.

  23. #23 archgoon
    October 2, 2007

    Oh, and thank you for the clarification as to whether the usage of DRM-circumventing tools by end users was also prosecutable under the DMCA. As you have doubtlessly already determined, I am not a lawyer, and this point has not been clear to me.

  24. #24 archgoon
    October 3, 2007

    Do you know if DVD makers are required specifically to make non-skippable FBI warning screens, or is there some sort of do_not_skip attribute associated with the DVD standards? I’ve found that some dvd players do actually let you skip, if you press the menu button.

  25. #25 Rob Knop
    October 3, 2007

    As you have doubtlessly already determined, I am not a lawyer, and this point has not been clear to me.

    I don’t think it’s really clear to anybody.

    The DMCA makes it illegal “traffic” in technology that can break “effective” content-protection cryptography. However, the DVDs I play are legally obtained DVDs on a laptop or desktop that I legally own. So, the playing isn’t illegal… but the downloading of the software that lets me legally play legal DVDs is legal.

    I think you have not to just be a lawyer, but a lawyer on serious drugs, for that to make sense.

    Re: DVD makers skipping stuff, I *suspect* that part of the licensing agreement that commercial DVD makers sign forces them to obey non-skippable tracks, just as it forces them to obey region codes. You can also get regionless DVD players…. It may be that they can pay a higher license fee to not screw over their users. Dunno.

    -Rob

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