Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Digital rights management

This week on Radio New Zealand National I talked about so-called Digital Rights Management. That’s the stuff which tries to stop you playing your CDs on your computer, won’t let you play specific DVDs on particular machines, and means that music bought from online download stores will only play on some kinds of music players.

Read on for my speaking notes and some links at the end.

Q: What is digital rights management?

A: It’s one of those Orwellian terms that actually means something different to what it sounds. DRM is a way for copyright holders to try to control music and movies that are distributed online.

Q: Take me back to the beginning here…

A: OK. Let’s think about vinyl records – those of us who are old enough that is! They are an inherently analogue way of storing music – the music is stored in snaky grooves spiraling around the face of the vinyl record. To copy a vinyl disc you generally recorded it onto a cassette – remember those? – which is also an analogue medium; it records the music as the intensity of the magnetism you apply to tape. And, because they were analogue, recordings on cassette tapes weren’t as good as the vinyl records, they were all hissy and so forth, and let’s be honest, vinyl records themselves aren’t always in the best of condition – all those pops and crackles! Also it was a pretty tedious process to make the recording. So although it was possible to record vinyl records to tape and lots of people used to, the result was only so-so in quality, and it really wasn’t possible to record your taped copy onto a another tape without it sounding pretty bad. All that hiss just added up and drowned out the music. Even so, the music business could get pretty grumpy about people recording their records, because they figured that every recording cost them the sale of a record. I don’t buy that argument myself, by the way.

Q: Why not?

A: Because it assumes that everyone who copies a recording would have bought their own if they hadn’t copied it. Some would, no doubt, but by no means all of them. Some might already have bought a copy of the recording in another format. And still others might go out and buy a copy of a CD on the strength of hearing a copy of it. Not everyone out there is out to try to avoid paying for music, something the CD companies would be well advised to consider.

Anyway, wind the clock forward to today. CD is a digital medium and it can be recorded onto other digital media – anything on a computer is digital. And a digital copy of a digital recording is exactly the same as the recording you start with. There is no loss of quality. So, in principle, someone could buy or borrow a CD and record it perfectly with their computer, and make copies very easily. And copies can be made of the copies, and so on ad infinitum, all with no loss of quality. That scares the record companies. And, with the advent of DVDs for films, it scares Hollywood as well. They are worried that no-one will buy CDs or DVD movies any more.

Q: Don’t the music and film companies have a point?

A: Yes, they do – it’s a real problem for them. Basically the technology – I mean the availability of commodity PCs and the Internet – has destroyed their business model, which is promote the hell out of a few acts and charge $35 a CD for everything they do. But the CD and film companies have tried to make this into a problem for everyone else.

Q: How so?

A: A couple of main ways. The first is in so-called Digital Rights Management.

Q: I wondered when we were going to get to that!

A: Quite. DRM is an attempt to put a digital safe around digital music, to try to prevent people from copying it. The problem is, it’s not very good at stopping people who want to copy music, but it’s very good at preventing people from doing perfectly reasonable things to enjoy the CD or DVD they have bought. So it doesn’t solve the problem and it annoys the hell out of lots of ordinary folk who just want their music or their film, and paradoxically it makes them more likely to find a way to copy the music or film just to get rid of the nasty DRM.

Q: So what bad things does it do?

A: Ha! The list is endless! Let’s hit the highlights. Firstly, CD DRM breaks the whole CD format. When you’re buying a CD you don’t know for certain that it’s going to play on every CD player. That’s only true if it hasn’t got the little Compact Disc Digital Audio logo on it somewhere by the way – Phillips owns that logo and it made companies take the logo off discs that don’t follow the standard, which doesn’t include DRM. But there’s a lot of problems with so-called enhanced discs not playing in your car, on your old CD player, or on your expensive audiophile one sometimes. That’s another example of the Orwellian use of language by the way. Enhanced discs are called that not because they are better for you the CD buyer – they are worse. They are called that because they have enhanced protection for the music, so they won’t play properly on lots of equipment. Like Digital Rights Management – it would be better called digital restrictions management because that’s what it does. Anyway, if you buy one of these discs and it won’t play in your favourite CD player, you might think you could take it back, but you can’t because they won’t accept returned CDs. So you’ve just wasted your money, unless of course like many people you just rip the CD using a computer so you can play the music, which is exactly what they don’t want you to do. So DRM is achieving exactly the opposite of what it’s meant to.

Q: OK, what else bad does DRM do?

A: Still staying with discs – we haven’t got to online yet – some kinds of CDs with DRM try to detect if they are being played on a computer, and if they are they try to interfere with the computer by loading up software and playing through that instead of through the computer’s normal facilities.

Q: But they still play?

A: Only if their assumptions about your computer are correct. They mostly only work in Windows, for starters, not Macs or Linux. And they want to load software on your computer – that’s really dangerous – that software could do anything!

Q: Surely they wouldn’t load bad software on your computer?

A: If only I could manage a hollow laugh on the radio – these companies absolutely don’t care what happens to your computer so long as they get to stop you copying music. In the most egregious case, some Sony CDs which came out a couple of years ago deliberately planted what’s called a rootkit on people’s computers. A rootkit is a tool that is used to break into a computer and hide your tracks completely. This is beyond bad manners – it’s criminal activity that would earn a fine or a prison term if someone did that to computers in this country, and deservedly so. And yet here was Sony deliberately doing it to their customers’ computers. It shows the kind of contempt Sony must have for it customers!

Q: And what happened? Did anyone go to jail?

A: Of course not. There was a class action suit which was settled out of court, lots of people got replacement CDs and a few dollars, but Sony did get fined in a couple of states. But my point here is: these people do not have your interests at heart.

Q: You mentioned online music – how does DRM work for online music?

A: This is another area full of doublespeak. Until recently, music companies insist that download services apply DRM so that consumers can’t just copy the music they have downloaded and spread it around the Net. And that is a problem, because again it makes assumptions about your computer. It leads to a single vendor monopolising the market as has happened with Apple and its iTunes.

Not that iTunes and the iPod aren’t great services – but there is not much competition to them, and it means that other competing MP3 players can’t get to play iTunes-purchased music, which keeps up the prices of iPods, and everyone’s happy except the consumer – there’s a pattern here, isn’t there!

Q: The consumer gets done again!

A: Funny, that. Online DRM is about as effective as CD based DRM in keeping out clever people who want to copy stuff – not very. There’s always a way to break it, and the Internet means that as soon as someone finds that way they turn it into a program anyone can run and publish it. Frankly, trying to stop people copying stuff is a loser’s game. It just irritates your customers by getting in their faces when they are trying to do something legitimate. To give another example: remember I said that DRM’d music bought from one company tends not to work on another company’s gear – well Microsoft for a while pushed a brand of DRM’d music called “Plays For Sure”. You might think that means that it will play on anything, but this is the strange world of DRM we are talking about here and everything means the opposite of what it says. Of course, “Plays for Sure” plays only on certain machines, also marked “Plays for Sure”, and the latest Microsoft downloads won’t play on them. Go figure.

But things are changing in this area at long last. And to be fair to Apple – they have had something to do with it. Steve Jobs, the messianic CEO there, posted a letter to the music industry earlier this year, saying DRM is futile, it’s annoying, give it away and just tell people not to copy stuff.

Q: And did he give DRM away?

A: The point was, it wasn’t his decision to make. Apple’s iTunes music store – where many, many people go to legally pay for and download music – has always used DRM because the CD companies insisted that they did as a condition of access to the music. But after his letter, one of the big four music companies, EMI, relented on DRM and iTunes now carries some tracks as iTunes plus, so-called, with no DRM. But they charged more for the DRM-free music – $1.29 US instead on 99 cents.

Then, in last month or so, we saw the launch of the Amazon music download store. That sells everything DRM-free – it seems the music companies are finally getting the message. And its sells everything for 89 or 99 cents US per song. Now iTunes has dropped its DRM-free price to 99 cents as well. That’s what I mean about competition and DRM killing it – strip off the DRM and we all benefit.

Q: What’s to stop people just copying the music and putting it up on the Net?

A: It’s illegal. People who did that would get found out because the music tracks they have paid for and downloaded are what is called ‘watermarked’ with their name and details. So if I get a track and publish it, it will be really obvious that Colin Jackson was the person who did this, and I’d get a visit from a lawyer pretty fast. I don’t have a problem with that – it’s reasonable to expect me to pay for my music, especially now there’s getting to be a competitive market in downloads. And its also reasonable for me to expect to play the music back on the all the computers and iPods in my house, but not for me to give it away or sell it. Watermarking is an elegant solution which does just that. Pity the music companies didn’t do that first.

Q: What does New Zealand law say about all this?

A: Our law is up in the air on this. Currently it’s not even legal here to copy music for your own use, ie to put it on your iPod. That’s right, copying music to your iPod is illegal currently. It’s legal everywhere else of course, or iPods wouldn’t exist. There’s a bill before the House which is supposed to fix this, but the last time the public saw the bill it doesn’t fix the problem – the bill still lets music companies opt out of letting you copy music to your iPod, and let’s face it, most of these companies don’t appear to value their customers’ interests and are likely to opt out. I need to stress, though, that the Bill isn’t law yet and it seems to have dropped out of sight for a while after the its Select Committee stage. I can only hope that it’s getting some more attention from people who know what they are doing.

The other thing the Bill does is apply a measure of protection for DRM – this awful stuff which just hinders legitimate users from enjoying what they have bought. The bill has a rather farcical provision saying that you can take DRM’d music to a library so they can strip it off for you – I mean librarians are fantastic people, but really how are they going to manage this?

If there is anyone listening out there who is reviewing this Bill – please do the right thing! Make our iPods unconditionally legal as they are elsewhere, extend the iPod provisions in the Bill to cover video as they do in the US, get rid of the protection in the Bill for this horrible DRM which only damages honest people’s use of the media they have bought and doesn’t prevent copying.


Apple’s Steve Jobs writes on DRM.

The saga of Sony and the rootkit it planted on people’s computers.

Amazon’s music download store which is DRM-free and so works with any music player.

The New Zealand Copyright Bill before the house – check the language about DRM, which it calls TPMs.

A great take on what’s wrong with the Copyright Bill.

A recent speech by the Free Software Foundation’s Richard Stallmann in which he rails against DRM and against software which restricts people’s options.

posted by colin at 10:50 am  

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