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.