Ed Felton Explains the DRM Designer’s Mindset

Ed Felton has been peering into the mindset of the DRM designer. And what he sees is wheels missing a few cogs:

Freedom to Tinker: A Perfectly Compatible Form of Incompatibility: The whole point of DRM technology is to prevent people from moving music usefully from point A to point B, at least sometimes. To make DRM work, you have to ensure that not just anybody can build a music player — otherwise people will build players that don't obey the DRM restrictions you want to connect to the content. DRM, in other words, strives to create incompatibility between the approved devices and uses, and the unapproved ones. Incompatibility isn't an unfortunate side-effect of deficient DRM systems — it's the goal of DRM.

A perfectly compatible, perfectly transparent DRM system is a logical impossibility.

The idea is so odd that it's worth stopping for a minute to try to understand the mindset that led to it. And here [Leonardo] Chiariglione's [the creator of the MP3 music format and formerly head of the Secure Digital Music Initiative] comments on MP3 are revealing:

[Scientific American interviewer]: Wasn't it clear from the beginning that MP3 would be used to distribute music illegally?

[Chiariglione]: When we approved the standard in 1992 no one thought about piracy. PCs were not powerful enough to decode MP3, and internet connections were few and slow. The scenario that most had in mind was that companies would use MP3 to store music in big, powerful servers and broadcast it. It wasn't until the late ’90s that PCs, the Web and then peer-to-peer created a completely different context. We were probably naïve, but we didn't expect that it would happen so fast.

The attitude of MP3's designers, in other words, was that music technology is the exclusive domain of the music industry. They didn't seem to realize that customers would get their own technology, and that customers would decide for themselves what technology to build and how to use it. The compatible-DRM agenda is predicated on the same logical mistake, of thinking that technology is the province of a small group that can gather in a room somewhere to decide what the future will be like. That attitude is as naive now as it was in the early days of MP3.

Alas, what Ed leaves out is the attitude of the folks who hire DRM designers. They may know perfectly well that other machines can be built to defeat their systems. But they are prepared to make it all illegal (pace DMCA), and use the courts and the cops to spread fear and generally decrease respect for the legal system as it tries to hold back the tide.

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