June 15, 2024

A Perfectly Compatible Form of Incompatibility

Scientific American has published an interview with Leonardo Chiariglione, the creator of the MP3 music format and formerly head of the disastrous Secure Digital Music Initiative. (SDMI tried to devise a standard for audio content protection. The group suffered from serious internal disagreements, and it finally dissolved after a failed attempt to use DMCA lawsuit threats to suppress publication of a research paper, by my colleagues and me, on the weaknesses of the group’s technology.)

Now Chiariglione is leading another group to devise the ultimate DRM (i.e., anti-copying) music format: “a system that guarantees the protection of copyrights but at the same time is completely transparent and universal.” He doesn’t seem to see that this goal is self-contradictory. After all, we already have a format that is completely transparent and universal: MP3.

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.

The idea of universally compatible DRM is so odd that it’s worth stopping for a minute to try to understand the mindset that led to it. And here Chiariglione’s comments on MP3 are revealing:

[Scientific American interviewer]: Wasn’t it clear from the beginning that MP3 would be used to distribute music illegally?

[Chiariglione]: When we approved the standard in 1992 no one thought about piracy. PCs were not powerful enough to decode MP3, and internet connections were few and slow. The scenario that most had in mind was that companies would use MP3 to store music in big, powerful servers and broadcast it. It wasn’t until the late ’90s that PCs, the Web and then peer-to-peer created a completely different context. We were probably naive, but we didn’t expect that it would happen so fast.

The attitude of MP3’s designers, in other words, was that music technology is the exclusive domain of the music industry. They didn’t seem to realize that customers would get their own technology, and that customers would decide for themselves what technology to build and how to use it. The compatible-DRM agenda is predicated on the same logical mistake, of thinking that technology is the province of a small group that can gather in a room somewhere to decide what the future will be like. That attitude is as naive now as it was in the early days of MP3.


  1. To continue on with mpt’s good summary, non-DRM formats may have an advantage today, but I expect the DRM-encumbered media players to be subsidized as a “complement good” to increase the size of the market for the DRM-encumbered media. After all, that was part of Microsoft’s strategy with XBox.

  2. As Steve suggested, the battle will be between the convenience of DRM formats and the convenience of non-DRM formats. Non-DRM formats have a head start precisely because they’re unencumbered. But that’s only a head start, not a guaranteed first place. The DRM formats can make up that lead in ease of downloading (e.g. iTunes AAC versus P2P MP3), OS integration and defaults (e.g. WMA vs. MP3), and network effects of quantity and player support (e.g. MP3 vs. Vorbis).

    So the outcome is partly dependent on how convenient software engineers make it for non-engineers to use non-DRM formats. Because even if all the retired software engineers in all the world are cracking the DRM, the network effects will still be reducing their choice of hardware.

  3. The ‘machines will be built to our rules’ idea didn’t even work with DVD region free (patches available for significant machines) let alone the VCD and SVCD compatibility issue allowing the play of ripped re-encoded material. Apex sold VCD compliant players in USA for years reputedly without paying the MPEG1 licence fees.

    The copy protect broadcast flag will likely be a fiasco also, ‘cept in USA and Aussie of course…

  4. DRM and the Social Contract

    I can’t understand why the idea of being honest and honoring your given word is so threatening to the online community…

  5. Todd Jonz says

    Seth writes:

    > The music executives aren’t doing the logical problem. They
    > just aren’t. They’re focused on the business problem.

    Perhaps so, but I would argue that their focus is just as short-sighted as Chiariglione’s was when he failed to anticipate mass-market machines capable of creating and reproducing MP3s.

    As a law-abiding, middle-aged music consumer, I am personally unaffected (albeit outraged) at the music industry’s ongoing attempts to tether content to devices. Fortunately (for me, at least) I buy mostly jazz and classical titles, where there’s little motivation for the industry to deploy DRM technology due to the miniscule market share comsumers like me represent. But the very first time I buy a DRMed CD that I cannot rip to my iPod, I will change camps immediately and join the outlaws — I will seek my music elsewhere than retail CDs and I will actively join the ranks of the DRM-crackers (I am a retired software engineer with, some would argue, too much time on his hands.)

    I am not part of the problem today, but each new action by the entertainment industry that further limits the activities of it’s law-abiding customers pushes me a little bit closer to the edge.

  6. I think I was trying to make the same point as Seth: Engineers can succeed at the goal if they get a large enough percentage of the customer base to be happy enough not to want to spend the time to by-pass the DRM.

    The problem with doing this in the MP3 market is that it is practically impossible to get the distribution channels to cooperate, because they all have competing interests. They’ll need to perceive that they have no other choice but to work with a DRM winner to accept the technology and enable a “universal and seamless” solution.

  7. “you still lose if a significant number of users get their hands on noncompliant player or ripper software.”

    The problem is that this is not 100.0% clear as being true as a practical, profitable, problem.

    The music executives aren’t doing the logical problem. They just aren’t. They’re focused on the business problem.

    I believe it’s a technologist mistake to think that because the logical problem is unsolvable, the business problem is obviously, unarguably, should-be-so-clear-no-dispute, unsolvable.

    I know that is the appealing view. But it may not be correct! Certainly, given that the music executives have rejected it, they don’t believe it (which leads to the idea that we must repeat to ourselves, over and over, that they should recognize we are right)

  8. Steve,

    I think engineers and scientists would draw the same conclusion here.

    From an engineering standpoint, the goal is to keep the content from being ripped into non-DRM formats. So it’s not enough to get your DRM implemented in the major players, because even if you do manage to do that, you still lose if a significant number of users get their hands on noncompliant player or ripper software. And I don’t see any practical way you can prevent that from happening.

  9. Ed writes: “Actually, there’s a huge problem there. How can you make everyone support the DRM format in the way you want? You can’t.”

    –> Ed, I’m a bystander on this one, but are you a scientist or an engineer in your response?

    The engineer might say they’re done after they handle the popular players on Windows, Mac, and maybe Linux. The scientist might argue that the goal of DRM — to insert an obstacle into theft — is silly because it can be bypassed.

  10. I’m not talking abotu seeing “the world changing”. I’m talking about looking at what computers were able to do then, and then assuming that the speeds of the computers would be ever so slightly faster. Really, not being able to look at what the machine can do and not thinking they’d ever get any faster is beyond blinkered.

    Actually, most business, government and social prophesy is predicting the “continuation of the thing that is happening” (to use Max Dublin’s phrase). That’s all you needed to do to see that music could be encoded with personal computers (it was being done then with those computers). What this guy was doing was assuming that computers would not be able to do what they already could at that time.

  11. After the fact, it’s always easy to say it should have been obvious. But at any given time, there’s always a bunch of bubble-blowers saying how The World Will Change. Sometimes it does. But much less often than prophesied.

    If you have decades of experience under one set of economic assumptions, you tend to be skeptical of the guys saying “In the next ten years, everything you know about the industry economics, from the past century, will be obsolete”.

    Because such “futurists” tend to be like stopped clocks – the occasional time they are right is accident, not wisdom.

  12. So from that perspective, their assumptions must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

    If “the time” had been 1982 maybe, but he’s talking about 1992. All you had to do then is look at the beginnings of digital media on Ataris, Amigas and Macs (which had been going on for several years by then), envision that personal computers would become slightly faster (which was hardly a stretch to imagine) and you’d see it. I think they just had a worldview that said “it’s ours and that’s how it’s going to be always”. A blinkered view, rather like the blinkered view that Detroit carmakers had tens years before that when they thought that Japanese cars were poorly built junk and their stuff was great, ignoring what their customers were telling them. A blinkered view not unlike what the music industry still seems to think (hey, at least Detroit only took a decade to wake up and work on their problem).

  13. Cypherpunk writes: “Universal just means that everyone supports it. No problem there.”

    Actually, there’s a huge problem there. How can you make everyone support the DRM format in the way you want? You can’t.

    This is the same error Chiariglione made, of thinking that there is a closed, trusted set of people who make products of a certain type. The designers of MP3 probably would have said that “everyone” would use the MP3 format in the way they intended; but they found out later that “everyone” was a much larger set of people than they originally thought.

  14. 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, trans…

  15. Perhaps a DRM system “can be perfectly transparent” but in practice current systems seem to be rather less so.

  16. Cypherpunk says

    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.

    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.

    A DRM system can be perfectly transparent as long as you are honest about agreeing to any conditions on the use of the material. If you try to violate your agreement and go back on your word, the DRM may make itself known.

    Chiariglione is talking to the honest people of the world. Criminals, liars and thieves are not his audience. I was proud of him for forthrightly declaring that the “culture of theft” in the online world is “detestable”. Not many people dare to use such strong words.

    For those of us who are not interested in cheating other people out of the value they deserve by making promises we don’t intend to keep, Chiariglione’s vision of a transparent and universal music format is attractive and, hopefully, achievable. It is not contradictory in any way.

  17. I’d put it that they didn’t foresee the revolution in digital production. After all, if the industry background is in vinyl, it’s basically *true* that “technology is the exclusive domain of the music industry”. Not in an intrinsic sense, but how many people have $50 record-pressing machines which work on $0.25 blanks? So from that perspective, their assumptions must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

    I’m not sure that compatible-DRM is coming from the same mistake. I think it’s based in a theory that suing other people can keep the technology from being used widely enough, so their market can be maintained.

    It may be ultimately wrong, but that’s not so clear.