April 20, 2014

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DRM In Retreat

Last week’s agreement between Apple and the major record companies to eliminate DRM (copy protection) in iTunes songs marks the effective end of DRM for recorded music. The major online music stores are now all DRM-free, and CDs still lack DRM, so consumers who acquire music will now expect it without DRM. That’s a sensible result, given the incompatibility and other problems caused by DRM, and it’s a good sign that the record companies are ready to retreat from DRM and get on with the job of reinventing themselves for the digital world.

In the movie world, DRM for stored content may also be in trouble. On DVDs, the CSS DRM scheme has long been a dead letter, technologically speaking. The Blu-ray scheme is better, but if Blu-ray doesn’t catch on, this doesn’t matter.

Interestingly, DRM is not retreating as quickly in systems that stream content on demand. This makes sense because the drawbacks of DRM are less salient in a streaming context: there is no need to maintain compatibility with old content; users can be assumed to be online so software can be updated whenever necessary; and users worry less about preserving access when they know they can stream the content again later. I’m not saying that DRM causes no problems with streaming, but I do think the problems are less serious than in a stored-content setting.

In some cases, streaming uses good old fashioned incompatibility in place of DRM. For example, a stream might use a proprietary format and the most convenient software for watching streams might lack a “save this video” button.

It remains to be seen how far DRM will retreat. Will it wither away entirely, or will it hang on in some applications?

Meanwhile, it’s interesting to see traditional DRM supporters back away from it. RIAA chief Mitch Bainwol now says that the RIAA is agnostic on DRM. And DRM cheerleader Bill Rosenblatt has relaunched his “DRM Watch” blog under the new title “Copyright and Technology“. The new blog’s first entry: iTunes going DRM-free.

Comments

  1. Bill Rosenblatt says:

    Ed, thanks for the plug.

    For the record, I had lobbied Jupitermedia (publishers of DRM Watch and owners of the domain name) to change DRM Watch’s name and positioning to something like Copyright and Technology for some time now. And if you look at how my writings have evolved over the last couple of years, you’ll notice that I’ve spent an increasingly large proportion of ink/bytes covering topics other than DRM in its narrow sense. But Jupitermedia did not want to go to the effort of renaming and repositioning. Ultimately, Jupitermedia and I parted ways amicably, and I have returned to my roots as a self-publisher (DRM Watch was self-published from 2001-2003).

    As for your characterization of me as a “DRM Cheerleader,” I am gratified to see that you did not use the word “apologist.” There ought to be an industry that builds technologies for facilitating compensation of rightsholders for use of their works. It’s just unfortunate that those who would benefit from such technology don’t want to pay for it.

    • techflaws.org says:

      “There ought to be an industry that builds technologies for facilitating compensation of rightsholders for use of their works.”

      Says who? Rightsholders are compensated by customers paying for their works. End of story.

      But why should I pay for something that’s restricting me? DRM has no benefit whatsoever for the consumer and therefore it will die a well deserved death as soon as those Itunes lemmings and the likes that actually pay extra money to be allowed to convert stuff they already paid for (!) to unencumbered formats eventually wise up. Rightsholders need us not the other way round.

  2. rp says:

    “There ought to be an industry that builds technologies for facilitating compensation of rightsholders for use of their works.”

    Back in the heyday of intelligent agents, Mark Stefik at PARC (among others) worked on the notion of languages for negotiating rights, so that your software and the software offering a piece of content could come to an agreement on what was needed for any particular transfer. Too bad the only negotiating position distributors wanted was “We own it all, all the time, so give us your money.”

    Meanwhile, DRM for video may be a joke on the software side, but on the hardware side it’s firmly embedded in interface specifications. If your devices don’t have the licenses to implement HDCP, good luck displaying certain content. (And although the marketplace will probably move away from HDCP eventually, backward-compatibility will take even longer to go away.)

    • Bill Rosenblatt says:

      Thanks for bringing up Mark Stefik’s work — which is exactly what got me interested in DRM in the first place when he (and his Xerox colleagues) presented it to me in 1995.

      Interestingly enough, Stefik re-entered the DRM field recently after a prolonged absence while researching other fields. I talked to him about two years ago. Among other things, he expressed dismay that DRM was being used to “lock everything down” (I believe those were his words). His concept of “trusted search engines” has special resonance nowadays in the interactions between Google and the publishing industry.

    • Wes Felter says:

      I don’t understand the benefit of “negotiating” with a server when the server could simply present me a list of available license terms and let me pick one.

  3. Anonymous says:

    “There ought to be an industry that builds technologies for facilitating compensation of rightsholders for use of their works.”

    “Their” works? Think about it this way: if I license a song from the RIAA, is it “my” song? No, and it’s not their song either. Your technical error here betrays your misguided sense of ownership.

    • Bill Rosenblatt says:

      Uh, last time I checked, the RIAA is not a rightsholder. And I never said anything about the RIAA, much less that they are rightsholders, which they are not. I’m the one making “technical errors”?

      • Lawrence D'Oliveiro says:

        Bill Rosenblatt wrote: “…last time I checked, the RIAA is not a rightsholder”.

        But they are the only ones who benefit from DRM on recorded works. Certainly the artists don’t benefit.

  4. Mitch Golden says:

    Microsoft, as usual, is the last to get the word:

    http://slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=09%2F01%2F22%2F1914201&from=rss

    • Danny Colligan says:

      Just when you think DRM goes away, it rears its ugly head once more…

      I don’t think we’ve seen the last of it. Still, no one in the ‘real world’ seems to even know what DRM is, and it functions as a nice revenue stream for Big Media. As soon as they switch from one deactivated DRM scheme to the next, they force people to purchase the same content all over again. This is Big Media’s contemporary analogue for re-releasing things in different formats (VHS, DVD, BluRay) except the difference is the consumer doesn’t receive any appreciable increase in quality from the new version.

  5. David Mazur says:

    And now…finally…the FTC is making a request for public comments for a town hall meeting on DRM. Ed – you should definitely make your voice heard.

    https://secure.commentworks.com/ftc-DRMtechnologies/

    The actual event takes place Wednesday, March 25, 2009 in Seattle, but comments submitted through the online form are due January 30, 2009.

  6. Andrew S says:

    DRM is still used in music subscription services such as Rhapsody unlimited; the DRM is what kills your access to the music if either the song goes away or your subscription expires.

  7. supercat says:

    If I pay someone to let me experience some media content once, or for some period of time, such payment does not generally entitle me to experience or otherwise use the content for any purpose once the term of use has ended, nor does may payment entitle me to sell or sub-license any of the privileges to which I am entitled with regard to the content. If DRM allows me to exercise the privileges I’ve paid for, I would have no legitimate basis for complaining about it; if it does not, my sole remedy would be a refund of any payment made to experience the media. I have no basis to worry about whether I technological changes will render the content unplayable in future machines; if I stop paying for such content, I have no basis to expect it to keep playing at all; if I am paying for such content and it stops working, I could demand the supplier either fix the problem or give me a pro-rated refund from the time the content stopped working. Note that if the supplier goes under, my media would quit working, but my payments would also stop.

    On the other hand, if I buy a movie on a normal disc, I am buying the perpetual authority to play it wherever and whenever I want, subject only to rules regarding “public performance”. If DRM causes the disk to come unplayable, the vendor should be required to fix the problem. Unfortunately, even if I paid in 2009 for the right to watch the movie in 2039 when DRM breaks things, there would be no guarantee the supplier would be around to make good on his obligation.

    Thus, I view DRM very differently for content which is rented as ephemeral, as compared with content which is sold as persistent. What will be interesting will be to see how the markets for ephemeral versus persistent media compare.

    • rp says:

      Well, duh. I think everybody does. But note the discrepancies. If I want to listen to a song once, the price (broadcast or internet radio) is typically zero. The cost, supported by ads or otherwise, is a few cents. But if I want to legally download that song to listen to it once, the price is roughly a buck (and the cost, by the time the transaction is done, can be rather higher). Same for video content, with slightly different multipliers.

      The proper role of DRM, if any, is to preserve a market where the ephemeral and permanent versions can be sold at appropriately different prices. But the primary use of DRM seems to have been rather to attempt creation of a market where the ephemeral gets sold at the same price as the permanent version.

    • Anonymous says:

      “I have no basis to worry about whether I technological changes will render the content unplayable in future machines; if I stop paying for such content, I have no basis to expect it to keep playing at all; if I am paying for such content and it stops working, I could demand the supplier either fix the problem or give me a pro-rated refund from the time the content stopped working. Note that if the supplier goes under, my media would quit working, but my payments would also stop.”

      I find this deeply disturbing. You are talking about listening to recorded music and similarly as if it were an ongoing service, like a utility, being provided by the musicians (or a record label, or something). As if it were like your water, phone service, or hydro.

      It is not. If you download an mp3 and listen to it repeatedly, whoever performed the music, whoever recorded it, and whoever transcoded it all did exactly as much work as if you listen to it once. The marginal cost to them of a copy of an mp3 is zero; the marginal cost to them of someone listening one additional time to their copy is even zeroer, if that’s at all possible.

      Now, creating an incentive to create has been put forth as a (IMO thin) justification for fixing the price of a copy above its marginal cost of zero, and copyright law has been put in place to do that. However, nothing in copyright law or in the theory behind it supports or justifies enforcing the sort of “rental model” you seem to be suggesting above, for music or (where it’s often being pushed these days) for software.