January 30, 2007

Memo From the Future: Why DRM is Doomed

Greetings. Historians looking back on the current battles over Digital Rights Management (DRM) will probably chuckle heartily when they review the bizarre and ultimately failed measures that were promulgated in attempts to control entertainment content during our era.

But we can still hope for a bit of their sympathy as well, since so many of the current DRM efforts are the work of very smart yet very desperate people, who mostly know in their hearts that the game is up, but still understandably wish to do everything they can to protect their content, franchises, and livelihoods.

One need only look at the utterly convoluted and almost Kafkaesque lengths that Microsoft's Vista and computer manufacturers are going through to try prevent the leakage of bits from "premium" content (e.g., hi-def versions of the "Gilligan's Island" box set), for us to recognize what can only be characterized as last gasp efforts.

Still, in the end these efforts will fail, and different business models will rise to take their places. Where demand for illicit copies exists, unencumbered bits will always find some way to escape from their bondage -- often through copies made by insiders within the production chains themselves, long before ostensibly "secure" versions ever reach consumer hands. The Internet guarantees that it only takes a single such "clean" illicit leaked copy to permeate the entire planet in short order, and for every watermarking or other control scheme deployed, hacker-provided countermeasures will quickly appear.

How this process will alter the entire ecosystem of creative talents and media is obviously not clear, but the change itself is inevitable. We need not like or approve of this course of events -- how we feel about it won't change the equation. We're all at the mercy of fundamental technological truths, especially in this case.

Interestingly, we don't even know how much financial loss can actually be attributed to this ongoing sea change, given the certain rise of other business models. We can't accurately determine how many illicit copies of music and movies really represent true lost sales. Many people collect available audio and video materials just to have them, but never would have bought them in the first place if they couldn't get them for free.

Evidence suggests that many of these same persons will willingly pay for legal copies when they perceive value-added content and fair pricing -- the robust sales of budget-priced DVD film compilations is a clear indicator of such potential.

A similar question permeated the world of phone phreaking decades ago. AT&T proclaimed millions in lost illicit phone calls revenue, but how many of those calls would really have been made if they had been charged? Few young phone phreaks really needed to hear the "speaking clock" in Sydney.

This isn't the first time that technological advancement has sent shivers through the body politic and its dominions.

The rise of the printing press initially was largely seen as a doomsday technology by then current powers. More recently, containerization caused upheavals throughout the shipping industry. Yet in so many of these cases, the affected entities found ways to profit from these new circumstances, even though major changes in their world views were typically necessary.

In the universe of the Internet and technology more generally, there are some battles that may well be winnable, especially when multidisciplinary in nature, but others that are doomed by the intrinsic nature of technological development. DRM appears to fall squarely into the latter category.

There are many detailed technical aspects to this story of course. These range from "fair use" arguments, to the apparent initial cracking of the new HD/Blu-ray copy protection system, to whether or not DRM content "revocation" systems can actually be triggered without massive consumer backlashes -- and everything in between.

None of these particulars matter much. They will merely be transient footnotes to the big DRM picture when viewed from years hence. No matter how you slice, dice, or litigate the issue, DRM is going to be as dead as the dodo -- the "Edsel" of computing history.

The sooner we accept the fact that DRM will fail in the long run, and we choose to move cooperatively beyond DRM's artificial technological distortions to hardware, software, and the economy, the brighter the outlook will be for everyone concerned.

Perhaps those future historians will have a surprise coming.


Posted by Lauren at January 30, 2007 02:28 PM | Permalink
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