DRM – The way forward?

DRM – Digital Rights Management – has been a very contentious issue in my life. To date I have refused to part with any money for music containing DRM and instead buy my own CDs and rip them onto my own PC, enabling me to have my own digital jukeboxes that I feel I control.

Not alone, many people resent the idea that they are being controlled by the music or movie industry, for good reason:

  • You are restricted in use of what you buy. iTunes, PlayForSure and the Zune are all good examples of this – you buy for one player and are then locked in. You then have to re-purchase something you feel you already own just because you’ve bought a new digital player. Compare this to buying a new CD player.
  • You cannot protect your purchase. Unlike houses, cars and banks, PCs are inherently unreliable devices. If you buy a CD you can take a copy and use that while protecting your investment. Your house is unlikely to burn down and if it does you typically have insurance to cover that. PCs can catch a data destroying virus, corrupt themselves or simply break down meaning loss of investment. Some DRM systems permit backup copies to be taken but typically the process is to complex for the casual user.

From the industries perspective, they are looking to protect an investment. The Internet makes file sharing far too simple in their eyes – programs like Kazza robbing them of revenue. So they attempt to protect their investment, the bad thing being it is only an attempt and not a solution.

Unfortunately there is currently no technology that will ever be a fool proof method of protection. There is no magic pill that can taken. For every layer of protection added, a cracker goes and gets a debugger out and bypasses it. Unless we get to a fully-implemented Trusted Computing world, there can be no way that you guarantee that a program or operating system hasn’t been subverted into bypassing a protection mechanism. With the release of Microsoft Windows Vista, we are given small reasons for hardware manufacturers to bring TPM technology into their PCs with the introduction of BitKeeper technology – this is the first step on a slippery slope that has both positive and negative social implications. Personally I am against a full TC implementation, so I think simpler solutions have to be found.

From a practical perspective, I actually have no problem with a file having extra security information added, providing it offers this:

  • I can use the file on any device I want
  • If I loose the file, I can get it back again. For free.

This sounds as if it completely conflicts against the aims of DRM, and I guess it does. Rather than focus on the file owner and their rights, industry should move the focus to the consumer. Introduce a system whose aim is not to try and lock the CD in a vault, but one whose aim is merely to identify whose CD it is. A new system not managed by Microsoft, or the music industry, or a government. Rather one managed by the people. An open standard. Managed by a non-profit independent group. A group whose job isn’t to care about what a file is. What it contains or what its value is. A group solely responsible for signing it with the purchaser’s details. A digital certificate. Just like SSL.
Yes, this will never be fully secure, but that is not really the aim. A CD can be copied. Yes there will be abuse. People will download files to multiple computers. A CD can be ripped many times. There is no perfect world, but there should be an platform that exists, that can be openly implemented on any operating system that enables a person to purchase a music file, have evidence that they have bought it and a way of identifying whose file it is. Think any file too. Books, personal documents. Images. Anything made of bytes.

There will never be a DRM lock-in system that works, so the industry should take a new less restrictive approach and give us the flexibility of the CD back.  Then I’ll spend my $ online too.

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