Randy Picker has an interesting post on the Chicago Law Faculty blog, describing what he calls “mistrust-based DRM”. The idea is that when an online music store gives you a song, it embeds into the song a watermark that contains your credit card number, or some other information that would let a (dishonest) person spend your money. This gives you an incentive not to distribute the song.
This is an instructive idea, but not a practical one.
In analyzing this idea, it’s helpful to divide it into two pieces: (1) embed a watermark that identifies the user, and (2) make that watermark a secret of the user and readable by the anyone who gets the file. Piece (1), taken alone, is a widely discussed DRM strategy which has not been used much in practice, for reasons I plan to discuss tomorrow. Today, I want to focus on the second piece.
Specifically, I want to compare two systems. In the more traditional system, the watermark is secret – it can be read only by the copyright owner or its agents – and users fear being sued for infringement if their files end up on P2P. In Randy’s system, the watermark is public – anybody can read it – and users fear being victimized by fraud if their files end up on P2P. I’ll call these two alternatives “secret-watermark” and “public-watermark”.
How do they compare? For starters, a secret watermark is much harder for an adversary to find and remove. If a watermark is public, everybody knows exactly where in the music it is stored. Common sense, and experience too, says that if you know where in a file information is stored, you can modify that part of the file and obliterate the information. But if the watermark is secret, then an adversary isn’t told where to look for it or how to change the file to remove it. Robustness of the watermark is an important issue that has been the downfall of past watermark systems.
A bigger problem with the public-watermark design, I think, are the forces unleashed when your design principle is to enable fraud. For example, the system will lose its force if unrelated anti-fraud measures become more effective, or if the financial system acts to protect users from fraud. Today, a consumer’s liability for fraudulent credit card transactions is capped at $50, and credit card companies often forgive even that $50. (You could use some other account information instead of the credit card number, but similar issues would still apply.) Copyright owners would be the only online merchants who wanted a higher level of fraud on the Net.
Worse yet, even law-abiding consumers would face a higher risk of fraud, because any loss or theft of their music or movie files would expose their financial information. Spyware programs could collect this information from users’ computers – and studies show that at least half of end-user PCs are infected with spyware. Law-abiding users would have a strong incentive to scrub the information out of their files, even if they had no intention of infringing. Alert anti-virus or anti-spyware vendors would be eager to provide this service.
Given the disadvantages of a public-watermark scheme, what are the arguments for it? Randy Picker argues that it gives end users an incentive to distrust fly-by-night purveyors of ripping software, worrying that they might steal the user’s information from the files and commit fraud. This isn’t entirely convincing: some such tools already contain heinous spyware that could cause users lots of harm, and reputable security suppliers are likely to provide watermark-scrubbing tools anyway. I think the threat of secret watermarks hidden in files, which fly-by-night vendors have no incentive to remove, would probably scare users enough.
On the whole, then, I think a secret-watermark scheme is better than a public-watermark one. But it should be noted that secret-watermark schemes themselves aren’t looking too good. They have mostly failed in the market, for reasons I’ll start digging into tomorrow.