March 20, 2018

Archives for August 2006

DRM Wars: Property Rights Management

In the first part of my invited talk at Usenix Security, I argued that as the inability of DRM technology to stop peer-to-peer infringement becomes increasingly obvious to everybody, the rationale for DRM is shifting. The new argument for DRM-bolstering laws is that DRM enables price discrimination and platform lock-in, which are almost always good for vendors, and sometimes good for society as a whole. The new arguments have no real connection to copyright enforcement so (I predict) the DRM policy debate will come unmoored from copyright.

The second trend I identified in the talk was toward the use of DRM-like technologies on traditional physical products. A good example is the use of cryptographic lockout codes in computer printers and their toner cartridges. Printer manufacturers want to sell printers at a low price and compensate by charging more for toner cartridges. To do this, they want to stop consumers from buying cheap third-party toner cartridges. So some printer makers have their printers do a cryptographic handshake with a chip in their cartridges, and they lock out third-party cartridges by programming the printers not to operate with cartridges that can’t do the secret handshake.

Doing this requires having some minimal level of computing functionality in both devices (e.g., the printer and cartridge). Moore’s Law is driving the size and price of that functionality to zero, so it will become economical to put secret-handshake functions into more and more products. Just as traditional DRM operates by limiting and controlling interoperation (i.e., compatibility) between digital products, these technologies will limit and control interoperation between ordinary products. We can call this Property Rights Management, or PRM.

(Unfortunately, I didn’t coin this term until after the talk. During the actual talk I used the awkward “DRM-like technologies”.)

Where can PRM technologies be deployed? I gave three examples where they’ll be feasible before too many more years. (1) A pen may refuse to dispense ink unless it’s being used with licensed paper. The pen would handshake with the paper by short-range RFID or through physical contact. (2) A shoe may refuse to provide some features, such as high-tech cushioning of the sole, unless used with licensed shoelaces. Again, this could be done by short-range RFID or physical contact. (3) The scratchy side of a velcro connector may refuse to stick to the fuzzy size unless the fuzzy side is licensed. The scratchy side of velcro has little hooks to grab loops on the fuzzy side; the hooks may refuse to function unless the license is in order. For example, Apple could put PRMed scratchy-velcro onto the iPod, in the hope of extracting license fees from companies that make fuzzy-velcro for the iPod to stick to.

[UPDATE (August 16): I missed an obvious PRM example: razors and blades. The razor would refuse to grip the blade unless the blade knew the secret handshake.]

Will these things actually happen? I can’t say for sure. I chose these examples to illustrate how far PRM micht go. The examples will be feasible to implement, eventually. Whether PRM gets used in these particular markets depends on market conditions and business decisions by the vendors. What we can say, I think, is that as PRM becomes practical in more product areas, its use will widen and we’ll face policy decisions about how to treat it.

To sum up thus far, the arguments for DRM are disconnecting from copyright, and the mechanisms of DRM are starting to disconnect from copyright in the form of Property Rights Management. Where does this leave the public policy debates? That will be the topic of the next (and final) installment.

DRM Wars: The Next Generation

Last week at the Usenix Security Symposium, I gave an invited talk, with the same title as this post. The gist of the talk was that the debate about DRM (copy protection) technologies, which has been stalemated for years now, will soon enter a new phase. I’ll spend this post, and one or two more, explaining this.

Public policy about DRM offers a spectrum of choices. On one end of the spectrum are policies that bolster DRM, by requiring or subsidizing it, or by giving legal advantages to companies that use it. On the other end of the spectrum are policies that hinder DRM, by banning or regulating it. In the middle is the hands-off policy, where the law doesn’t mention DRM, companies are free to develop DRM if they want, and other companies and individuals are free to work around the DRM for lawful purposes. In the U.S. and most other developed countries, the move has been toward DRM-bolstering laws, such as the U.S. DMCA.

The usual argument in favor of bolstering DRM is that DRM retards peer-to-peer copyright infringement. This argument has always been bunk – every worthwhile song, movie, and TV show is available via P2P, and there is no convincing practical or theoretical evidence that DRM can stop P2P infringement. Policymakers have either believed naively that the next generation of DRM would be different, or accepted vague talk about speedbumps and keeping honest people honest.

At last, this is starting to change. Policymakers, and music and movie companies, are starting to realize that DRM won’t solve their P2P infringement problems. And so the usual argument for DRM-bolstering laws is losing its force.

You might expect the response to be a move away from DRM-bolstering laws. Instead, advocates of DRM-bolstering laws have switched to two new arguments. First, they argue that DRM enables price discrimination – business models that charge different customers different prices for a product – and that price discrimination benefits society, at least sometimes. Second, they argue that DRM helps platform developers lock in their customers, as Apple has done with its iPod/iTunes products, and that lock-in increases the incentive to develop platforms. I won’t address the merits or limitations of these arguments here – I’m just observing that they’re replacing the P2P piracy bogeyman in the rhetoric of DMCA boosters.

Interestingly, these new arguments have little or nothing to do with copyright. The maker of almost any product would like to price discriminate, or to lock customers in to its product. Accordingly, we can expect the debate over DRM policy to come unmoored from copyright, with people on both sides making arguments unrelated to copyright and its goals. The implications of this change are pretty interesting. They’ll be the topic of my next post.

Blocked by Barracuda

Reader Jason Green reports that this site is blocked by Barracuda Spyware Firewall version 210. They say it’s a hacking site.

Here’s a screenshot.

UPDATE (August 4): Barracuda has acknowledged its error and says it is propagating an update to customers to fix it.