Sunday, June 20, 2004

Doctorow on DRM

Cory Doctorow recently gave a talk to the folks at Microsoft about why Digital Rights Management is doomed to fail. His arguments are essentially unassailable... he covers the technical reasons as well as the social reasons for the inevitable demise of DRM, and comes to the obvious (and yet thoroughly ignored) conclusion that the whole thing is just the last dying gasp of an industry that is terrified of new democratic techologies.

In his speech, Cory mentions the 'Darknet' paper, a Microsoft research project that described the futility of the situation and recommended that Microsoft back off of the DRM initiatives. One of the conclusions is that, paradoxically, the efforts of media industries to force DRM on consumers leads to an increase in piracy, not the expected decrease:

Here's a true story about a user I know who was stopped by DRM. She's smart, college educated, and knows nothing about electronics. She has three kids. She has a DVD in the living room and an old VHS deck in the kids' playroom. One day, she brought home the Toy Story DVD for the kids. That's a substantial investment, and given the generally jam-smeared character of everything the kids get their paws on, she decided to tape the DVD off to VHS and give that to the kids -- that way she could make a fresh VHS copy when the first one went south. She cabled her DVD into her VHS and pressed play on the DVD and record on the VCR and waited.

Before I go farther, I want us all to stop a moment and marvel at this. Here is someone who is practically technophobic, but who was able to construct a mental model of sufficient accuracy that she figured out that she could connect her cables in the right order and dub her digital disc off to analog tape. I imagine that everyone in this room is the front-line tech support for someone in her or his family: would it be great if all our non-geek friends and relatives were this clever and imaginative?

I also want to point out that this is the proverbial honest user. She's not making a copy for the next door neighbors. She's not making a copy and selling it on a blanket on Canal Street. She's not ripping it to her hard-drive, DivX encoding it and putting it in her Kazaa sharepoint. She's doing something *honest* -- moving it from one format to another. She's home taping.

Except she fails. There's a DRM system called Macrovision embedded -- by law -- in every DVD player and VHS that messes with the vertical blanking interval in the signal and causes any tape made in this fashion to fail. Macrovision can be defeated for about $10 with a gadget readily available on eBay. But our infringer doesn't know that. She's "honest." Technically unsophisticated. Not stupid, mind you -- just naive.

The Darknet paper addresses this possibility: it even predicts what this person will do in the long run: she'll find out about Kazaa and the next time she wants to get a movie for the kids, she'll download it from the net and burn it for them.

Typical US businesses... shoot themselves in the foot every time. But I guess the old dinosaurs are having trouble adjusting to a world in which their ability to generate 2500% profit on a CD and 1700% profit on a DVD is being threatened by the onset of new enabling technologies. It's the same story as the actual dinosaurs: adapt to the new environment, or die.