April 23, 2014

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Long DRM Article in Today’s NYT

Today’s New York Times offers a long article by Amy Harmon on DRM, or “digital armor” on recorded media. It’s mostly a backgrounder for people less up-to-speed on DRM issues than most of my readers (probably) are, but there are a few new nuggets worth noting.

First, Jack Valenti tries yet another analogy: “We need to put in speed bumps to keep people honest.” I have long argued that media companies should view DRM as a speed bump and not a fence, and I would be happy if Mr. Valenti stuck with this analogy. I doubt he will, though.

Speed bumps try to channel behavior by making some routes less convenient than others; but they don’t make anything impossible. Their inability to prevent anything is precisely what makes them useful as a tool – they can be used more liberally because a driver can overrule the speed bump when appropriate.

In my view, DRM is fundamentally weak so it can’t be anything but a speed bump. We might as well embrace its speed-bump nature, and build simpler DRM that doesn’t try to be impregnable. Then we can use DRM more liberally, like speed bumps, to channel behavior, but without trying (in vain) to prevent anything through pure technology.

If you believe the speed bump analogy, then the DMCA anti-circumvention laws clearly need to be repealed. A ban on driving over speed bumps makes speed bumps useless as speed bumps; and a ban on making cars that can drive over bumps is even worse.

Later in the article is another revealing record-company exec quote:

“You’re not buying music, you’re buying a key,” says Larry Kenswil, the president of the eLabs division of the Universal Music Group

Unfortunately for Mr. Kenswil, his customers don’t give a hoot about keys. They want to buy music.

Worse yet, these keys aren’t like the keys on your key ring. Your car key doesn’t expire. It doesn’t refuse to work on weekends, or when it’s humid, or when you’re burning the wrong brand of gas. It just opens the car – every time.

Next, we have this:

“We have zero objection to anyone’s ability to duplicate, to record, to play back and to save any copy- able content whatsoever,” said Peter Chernin, the president of 20th Century Fox. “But we’d be idiots not to be wary of the risks that come with that ability, and of the vulnerability of those of us supplying digitally unprotected films and shows.”

The first sentence is a puzzler. He can’t mean it literally, since Fox clearly does object to widespread copying over the Internet, so let’s read it as meaning that Fox doesn’t object to duplication, recording, playback, and saving for personal use as consumers have come to expect.

Even this is quite a statement. Is he really saying that Fox will not support any regulation that restricts personal use? If so, that’s a significant commitment, and one that will in my view make DRM impossible (since the technology cannot tell whether a use is personal). So he probably doesn’t mean that either.

Probably what he means is that Fox doesn’t object to personal use, but they will try to regulate personal use anyway, because a ban on many personal uses is an unavoidable side-effect of the regulation they seek. If so, then “we have zero objection” is irrelevant at best, and misleading at worst.

Finaally, the article ends with this:

Hollywood executives say they know they may need to adjust to meet consumer demands [for fair use]. James B. Ramo, the chief executive of Movielink, the Internet movie service, said the security software’s flexibility was one of its chief virtues.

“We’re not locked into these rules,” Mr. Ramo said. “We’re just testing them out.”

This is not likely to reassure Movielink’s customers, who are locked into the current rules.