Don Marti

Thu 20 Oct 2005 07:31:37 PM PDT

Walt Mossberg on DRM

It's good to see Media Companies Go Too Far in Curbing Consumers' Activities from Walt Mossberg on the Wall Street Journal site.

It's important to recognize, though, that DRM is not just a "consumer" issue—but I said that already.

I unsubscribed from a certain DRM-related mailing list when I realized that everyone was just thinking of bits as product, not as information. There are reasons for sending and receiving information other than commercial transactions. Information matters outside of commerce—a quotation from the incumbent's first campaign in a political video, a memo telling you to do something illegal, a sound bite in a parody. When DRM gets applied to that kind of information, there's no legal safety valve to let you circumvent it.

So we need the DMCRA.

Mossberg writes, "the industry should be focusing on ways to use DRM to stop the serious pirates -- people who upload massive quantities of music and videos to so-called file-sharing sites, or factories in China that churn out millions of pirate CDs and DVDs."

But DRM doesn't work against an attacker who's willing to go digital-analog-digital, as the massive infringers are. ("Camming" in a theater is the crudest example, but people who want to make a copy can record off the headphone connection, or point a camera at a screen. You can try to create a compress-decompress-proof watermark, but since the whole point of most A/V compression technology is to remove imperceptible information, any sufficiently advanced compression tool is indistinguishable from a watermark remover, unless you go with the "SDMI Riff" idea and make the watermark audible and/or visible, which might be as funny as adding "more cowbell" to "Don't Fear the Reaper" but probably not what most recording artists want.

I hope that Mr. Mossberg will look more closely at the real uses of DRM. It practice, it's really just a way to increase the barriers of switching between media formats or vendors.

Isn't it time to drop the polite fiction that MSFT and other incumbent IT and CE vendors are only doing DRM because of big, bad Hollywood?

Having "Hollywood" clamoring for harsh DRM (based on technical facts from the IT industry) actually helps the current market leaders.

With DRM, Microsoft and Apple can keep their audio format customers from switching back and forth (or maybe to Linux), and consumer electronics vendors can't lock out $39 Chinese DVD players, but can at least collect a tax on them.