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Horrible User



It Kills Fair Use

It'll Be Cracked !

It Robs The Future

The Content Is
Already Lost!

It's a Conspiracy
It Invades My

About The Author

Why DRM Sucks

Why is a DRM expert saying DRM sucks ?

Because sometimes it does suck: it needs to be done better.

While I believe that DRM can, on balance, be good thing (see the DRM is Great page), there are intelligent people who believe otherwise, who have objections worth noting. Some are ideological - and there's no placating an idealist. But some are based on experiences with bad DRM. That part, the DRM community needs to fix.

The User Experience is Lousy !

Lousy on-line content sources which happen to use DRM are all too common. About the only experience which most people would describe as very positive is the online music experience with iTunes, though Microsoft is working hard to close the gap. Mostly though, music sites just don't have a very appealing business model or user experience.

Improving these experiences will require both better DRM technology, and better innovation on business models and "fringe benefits" by the site operators. Even the best DRM technology takes away some capabilities from the consumer; it is a business issue, not a technology one, to give consumers something back in exchange.
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The Requirements for DRM are Contradictory

To name just one of the contradictions:

  • A must-have capability for consumers is "fair use:"
  • i.e. the legitimate copying of content under certain circumstances, such as making a copy of a CD you own to listen to in the car.
  • A must-have capability for content owners is piracy prevention
  • i.e. preventing any copying beyond "fair use."
But the difference between fair use and piracy is one of HUMAN INTENT, which no foreseeable technology can divine. So, since content owners cannot technologically restrict copying to "fair use", there is a strong temptation to PREVENT COPYING ALTOGETHER.
Consumers hate this and are showing considerable resistance to systems of this type.

And there are still more requirements that a reasonable person might add:

  • That a DRM system be lightweight and user friendly.
  • That it offer new benefits as well as new restrictions.
  • That it be quickly deployable on mass-market legacy platforms such as PCs, preferably without distributing hardware.
  • That it support multiple platforms and DRM vendors, and content migration between them.
  • That it provide "uncrackable" security.
  • That it support multiple content types such as audio, video, text, and software.
  • That it support multi-tier distribution, peer-to-peer distribution, superdistribution etc.
If success for DRM is defined as having one system which meets most or all of these requirements simultaneously, then DRM will fail.
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DRM Is Philosophically Wrong

Some people argue that there is inherently NO SUCH THING AS GOOD DRM. It goes beyond the unfortunate fact that many existing DRM systems are implemented poorly. In this view, DRM is evil at worst and futile at best.

Some proponents of this view are simply anti-business and don't care if nobody makes money. We won't waste more virtual trees on them here ;-).

More moderate advocates claim that, with creative business rules, you can still make money without DRM. People are, on the whole, inherently honest: they will pay for quality content even if they don't have to. Systems which embody this line of thought included The Street Performer Protocol, The Gift Economy, and Fairtunes". Tellingly, the links for all of these are now dead! Such honor based initiatives are a resounding flop - which leads us back to the boring old problem of people getting paid. The issue is not so much dishonesty as inconvenience.

In systems such as those above, acquiring usable content, and acquiring legitimate rights to it (or even making a "feel-good" contribution to the artist) ARE TWO UNRELATED PROCESSES. It may cross someone's mind to pay the creator of a favorite MP3 file. But will people go to considerable effort, personally, to find out how, and follow-up with action ? Probably not. It's just not convenient.

If it does nothing else, a good DRM system addresses this issue by making it ONE PROCESS to acquire both USABLE CONTENT and THE ASSOCIATED RIGHTS.
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DRM Kills "Fair Use"

Indeed, by current definitions, it does. As described in impossible requirements, technology which controls access to content is inherently incapable of exactly matching the current legal concepts of "fair use."

There is no direct way around this problem. Eventually, the definition of fair use may evolve to something technologically verifiable e.g. "n" permissible copies in "m" formats on "x" devices. Unfortunately, technology which behaves as above is hard to build and easy to crack, and in the meantime, content owners are trying to simply prevent copying altogether. Consumers owe it to themselves to fight this trend.

Another approach is simply to give a "license to crack" to certain groups who have a deep legitimate stake in fair use, as has been done for German libraries. Of course, that only works if it CAN be cracked.

DRM Is Futile, Because It Will Always Be Cracked

This line of reasoning starts and ends with the assumption that a "crack" will likely be produced for any given content-protection scheme.

After all, if a crack exists, and the Internet makes it available to everyone, then everyone will use it, and nobody will legitimately buy content, right ? An example of this school of thought, by the respected cryptographer Bruce Schneier, can be found here. This article attacks copy protection, and I happen to agree with Bruce that copy protection per se is stupid. However the train of thought clearly extends to other DRM systems.

From a pure security point of view, DRM cracks are always possible, they are often produced, and when produced, they are usually discoverable on the Internet. What this argument ignores is that cracks are a nuisance and a substantial portion of the user community would not choose to use them.

It's partly a question of honesty, but it is more about convenience and good business. Getting and applying a crack (and the crack for your next upgrade, and the crack for the crack detector, and the crack for your next computer, and..) puts users on an inconvenient, underground treadmill of support issues and flaky software made even flakier.

And an intelligent content owner can offer the legitimate user services based around the content, which add additional value beyond pirated or "cracked" content. Conversely, if an unimaginative content vendor makes legitimate on-line access to the content impossible, exorbitant, or user-hostile, then a large portion of the user community may take a dishonest route such as applying cracks.

The point is, the market for legitimate on-line content, including DRM, is there for the content owners to win or lose. Today, arguably, most are losing. But the losers are not losing because their DRM is crackable. They're losing because they have not given on-line consumers value. As iTunes has demonstrated, if you give consumers value through reasonable business options and a good user experience, many consumers will be quite happy to pay, and quite uninterested in applying cracks.

Even Microsoft has acknowledged in their Darknet paper that cracks and their associated underground networks will always exist, and that uncrackable DRM, although many would like to have it, is neither achievable nor necessary.
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It Robs the Future

If all content is created in - or migrates to - digital form, and all digital content is copy-protected, how will we access any of this content in 50 or 100 years? Dan Bricklin covers the issue well in this article. Personally, I think Dan is only partly right. The migration to digital form, even without copy protection, has already shortened the lifetime of content. No sooner were on-line news services available in the 1980s, than controversy arose over inconvenient articles "disappearing" from newspaper databases. More recently, a significant online archive in the UK, the Digital Domesday Book, has been off-line for ages due to obsolete technology and only revived with extraordinary effort.

In the long run, it has to be possible - and legal - for people other than content owners to archivally maintain digital content. DRM providers could be part of the solution here by providing (say) persistent rights-driven content access across evolving technologies. There's not much sign of that yet, but DRM is too new to rule it out.
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It's Part of a Conspiracy to Cripple Consumer Technology

Some have argued that DRM is just a means to an end: everyone knows it can't really protect content, but powerful American business interests are using their political connections to prop up outdated business models and ensure ever-tighter restrictions on what people can do with content, spelling the eventual death of fair use. This is not a totally crazy theory and consumers owe it to themnselves to vote with their wallets and not buy equipment thet takes away capabilities they value. Ernest Miller puts it nicely in Why Use DRM if it Doesn't Work ?.

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Uncontrolled Content is Freely Available Anyway

Most people who steal copyrighted materials don't have, or need, sophisticated technical knowledge. They don't need to apply cracks. They just download what they want from a peer-to-peer site or, for music, rip and/or burn it themselves from their own CDs.

Legacy formats like Red Book audio, .WAV and MP3 have no support for DRM, and they will be with us for a long time. And DVD Video is so easy to rip it might as well no thave DRM.So what's the point in adding DRM to new channels and formats ? Pirates won't use them anyway, they'll just stick to these easy sources.

This is true for now, but in the long run it will not be. It is not good argument against applying DRM to new channels and formats.

It is, however, a good reason not to apply draconian DRM to new channels and formats. Users have a choice of whether to migrate: if they feel that the newer systems are unduly restrictive, they will stay with the old. And since media are shared between PCs and consumer electronics, this could adversely affect the consumer electronics industry as well as the PC and online industries.
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DRM puts Big Brother in my PC !

Suppose we came to live in a world where every PC was a media policeman and called home to rat us out when we did something the RIAA might consider suspicious ?

It's not as far-fetched as it sounds. Fortunately, Microsoft appears to have realized that consumers don't want to be forced into such technology. They have publicly opposed efforts such as the Hollings bill, aimed at legislating-in security hardware for PCs, and delayed the deployment of NGSCB.

But all is not sweetness and light yet. For example, the MPAA still supports mandatory copyright-control hardware, and Microsoft still seems to want increasing control of Windows PCs. Recent software license agreements from Microsoft (the ones we all ignore when we install, say, the latest Windows Media Player) give them ever-increasing rights to monitor and control your PC, such as by unnanounced, unstoppable "updates" which could, say, disable certain media playback capabilities in the name of copyright protection.

The recent news is somewhat encouraging, but these trends should be of concern to everyone with a computer and an Internet connection i.e. everyone reading this. More information on these issues, including some things that you can do about it, can be found on our DRM Policy Page.

DRM does not need draconian laws or sneaky technologies. Content owners and consumers must remain free to choose from various technologies and business models, developed in open, competitive marketplaces.