Scientific American has published an interview with Leonardo Chiariglione, the creator of the MP3 music format and formerly head of the disastrous Secure Digital Music Initiative. (SDMI tried to devise a standard for audio content protection. The group suffered from serious internal disagreements, and it finally dissolved after a failed attempt to use DMCA lawsuit threats to suppress publication of a research paper, by my colleagues and me, on the weaknesses of the group’s technology.)
Now Chiariglione is leading another group to devise the ultimate DRM (i.e., anti-copying) music format: “a system that guarantees the protection of copyrights but at the same time is completely transparent and universal.” He doesn’t seem to see that this goal is self-contradictory. After all, we already have a format that is completely transparent and universal: MP3.
The whole point of DRM technology is to prevent people from moving music usefully from point A to point B, at least sometimes. To make DRM work, you have to ensure that not just anybody can build a music player – otherwise people will build players that don’t obey the DRM restrictions you want to connect to the content. DRM, in other words, strives to create incompatibility between the approved devices and uses, and the unapproved ones. Incompatibility isn’t an unfortunate side-effect of deficient DRM systems – it’s the goal of DRM.
A perfectly compatible, perfectly transparent DRM system is a logical impossibility.
The idea of universally compatible DRM is so odd that it’s worth stopping for a minute to try to understand the mindset that led to it. And here Chiariglione’s comments on MP3 are revealing:
[Scientific American interviewer]: Wasn’t it clear from the beginning that MP3 would be used to distribute music illegally?
[Chiariglione]: When we approved the standard in 1992 no one thought about piracy. PCs were not powerful enough to decode MP3, and internet connections were few and slow. The scenario that most had in mind was that companies would use MP3 to store music in big, powerful servers and broadcast it. It wasn’t until the late ’90s that PCs, the Web and then peer-to-peer created a completely different context. We were probably naive, but we didn’t expect that it would happen so fast.
The attitude of MP3’s designers, in other words, was that music technology is the exclusive domain of the music industry. They didn’t seem to realize that customers would get their own technology, and that customers would decide for themselves what technology to build and how to use it. The compatible-DRM agenda is predicated on the same logical mistake, of thinking that technology is the province of a small group that can gather in a room somewhere to decide what the future will be like. That attitude is as naive now as it was in the early days of MP3.