February 20, 2018

AP's DRM Announcement: Much Ado About Nothing

Last week the Associated Press announced it would be developing some kind of online news registry to control use of news content. From AP’s press release:

The registry will employ a microformat for news developed by AP and which was endorsed two weeks ago by the Media Standards Trust, a London-based nonprofit research and development organization that has called on news organizations to adopt consistent news formats for online content. The microformat will essentially encapsulate AP and member content in an informational “wrapper” that includes a digital permissions framework that lets publishers specify how their content is to be used online and which also supplies the critical information needed to track and monitor its usage.

The registry also will enable content owners and publishers to more effectively manage and control digital use of their content, by providing detailed metrics on content consumption, payment services and enforcement support. It will support a variety of payment models, including pay walls.

It was hard to make sense of this, so I went looking for more information. AP posted a diagram of the system, which only adds to the confusion — your satisfaction with the diagram will be inversely proportional to your knowledge of the technology.

As far as I can tell, the underlying technology is based on hNews, a microformat for news, shown in the AP diagram, that was announced by AP and the Media Standards Trust two weeks before the recent AP announcement.

Unfortunately for AP, the hNews spec bears little resemblance to AP’s claims about it. hNews is a handy way of annotating news stories with information about the author, dateline, and so on. But it doesn’t “encapsulate” anything in a “wrapper”, nor does it do much of anything to facilitate metering, monitoring, or paywalls.

AP also says that hNews ” includes a digital permissions framework that lets publishers specify how their content is to be used online”. This may sound like a restrictive DRM scheme, aimed at clawing back the rights copyright grants to users. But read the fine print. hNews does include a “rights” field that can be attached to an article, but the rights field uses ccREL, the Creative Commons Rights Expression Language, whose definition states unequivocally that it does not limit users’ rights already granted by copyright and can only convey further rights to the user. Here’s the ccREL definition, page 9:

Here are the License properties defined as part of ccREL:

  • cc:permits — permits a particular use of the Work above and beyond what default copyright law allows.
  • cc:prohibits — prohibits a particular use of the Work, specifically affecting the scope of the permissions provided by cc:permits (but not reducing rights granted under copyright).

It seems that there is much less to the AP’s announcement than meets the eye. If there’s a story here, it’s in the mismatch between the modest and reasonable underlying technology, and AP’s grandiose claims for it.

Lessons from Amazon's 1984 Moment

Amazon got some well-deserved criticism for yanking copies of Orwell’s 1984 from customers’ Kindles last week. Let me spare you the copycat criticism of Amazon — and the obvious 1984-themed jokes — and jump right to the most interesting question: What does this incident teach us?

Human error was clearly part of the problem. Somebody at Amazon decided that repossessing purchased copies of 1984 would be a good idea. They were wrong about this, as both the public reaction and the company’s later backtracking confirm. But the fault lies not just with the decision-maker, but also with the factors that made the decision more likely, including some aspects of the technology itself.

Some put the blame on DRM, but that’s not the problem here. Even if the Kindle used open formats and let you export and back up your books, Amazon could still have made 1984 disappear from your Kindle. Yes, some users might have had backups of 1984 stored elsewhere, but most users would have lost their only copy.

Some blame cloud computing, but that’s not precisely right either. The Kindle isn’t really a cloud device — the primary storage, computing and user interface for your purchased books are provided by your own local Kindle device, not by some server at Amazon. You can disconnect your Kindle from the network forever (by flipping off the wireless network switch on the back), and it will work just fine.

Some blame the fact that Amazon controls everything about the Kindle’s software, which is a better argument but still not quite right. Most PCs are controlled by a single company, in the sense that that company (Microsoft or Apple) can make arbitrary changes to the software on the PC, including (in principle) deleting files or forcibly removing software programs.

The problem, more than anything else, is a lack of transparency. If customers had known that this sort of thing were possible, they would have spoken up against it — but Amazon had not disclosed it and generally does offer clear descriptions of how the product works or what kinds of control the company retains over users’ devices.

Why has Amazon been less transparent than other vendors? I’m not sure, but let me offer two conjectures. It might be because Amazon controls the whole system. Systems that can run third-party software have to be more open, in the sense that they have to tell the third-party developers how the system works, and they face some pressure to avoid gratuitous changes that might conflict with third-party applications. Alternatively, the lack of transparency might be because the Kindle offers less functionality than (say) a PC. Less functionality means fewer security risks, so customers don’t need as much information to protect themselves.

Going forward, Amazon will face more pressure to be transparent about the Kindle technology and the company’s relationship with Kindle buyers. It seems that e-books really are more complicated than dead-tree books.

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.