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DRM

I thought that I would take an opportunity to use this blog entry for a bit of a waffle about DRM. For anyone unenlightened on what DRM is, Wikipedia defines it as follows:

Digital Rights Management (DRM) is an umbrella term referring to technologies used by publishers or copyright owners to control access to or usage of digital data or hardware, and to restrictions associated with a specific instance of a digital work or device.

Two issues are currently being talked about with regard to DRM, one is already in the mainstream media, and the other will probably start to break soon.

The first issue is EMI’s promise to release some of it’s music on the Apple iTunes music store without DRM restrictions. Now whilst I do support this action in principle, and realise that it is breaking down the boundaries and paving the way for all music to be sold without DRM, which is certainly the right direction to be going in, I also feel that in this case it is a slightly empty gesture from both sides. EMI are currently losing money fast, whilst Apple are being pressured by consumers to sell DRM-free music. So they have chosen what seems to be the “Win-Win” situation for both parties.

The problem that I have is that whilst music with DRM is in my opinion killing the whole idea of digital downloads and is restricting the freedoms that come with purchasing a pressed CD from a record store, the idea of buying a MP3 track for $1 fills me with a sense of anger, and since Apple (and Microsoft) can’t seem to figure out how the financial exchange rates work, it will probably cost £1 over at this side of the pond.

What gives Apple and EMI the right to charge more (in the majority of cases) for a digital download than it does for the physical product. Even someone with a basic understanding of business will know that eliminating costs such as producing the CD itself, printing inlays and shipping it to shops should bring the cost DOWN, not UP as it seems in this case.

I think Stephen Godfroy, director of the independant record label ‘Rough Trade’ sums it up perfectly:

“When they buy a CD you trust them to use it and respect the licence – it’s exactly the same when buying a download. DRM is saying, ‘We don’t trust you when it comes to downloads.’ It doesn’t make sense.”

Whilst I would never, ever purchase a DRM protected album, I would be more than willing to purchase a DRM-free version at the same cost as the CD. Now, people might wonder, why would I purchase a CD online that I could get for free from Illegal sites and P2P networks, well, the same reason that most people buy CD’s, to support the artist! Whilst I do realise that the artists themselves get very little of the profits from the CD, I still feel like I’m doing my bit for my favourite bands and supporting their future work.

The only reason that digital downloads have survived as long as they have is that the consumers just plain don’t know what they are buying, simple as. If I told someone that burning a certain song to CD 3 times would mean that any future burns would fail, or that cancelling their Napster account would render all of their downloaded music unplayable, then people might think twice and take their business elsewhere. The EFF have launched several campaigns to inform people about what they are actually buying from these services, but the consumers who buy music on-line are still very much uninformed.

The second thing I wanted to talk about is HDDVD and Blu-Ray:

Whilst this issue is not quite yet newsworthy to your average bloke in the street (and I imagine certain organisations are going to great lengths to keep it as quiet as possible), it is one that will become more apparent in the very near future. HDDVD and Blu-Ray are the two emerging high definition replacements for DVD. So soon enough these competing formats will replace the DVD’s on shelf in our shops, who will win is not really important to me. What is on the other hand is the efforts the organisations behind these formats have gone to to protect their content.

The emergence of DVD’s showed how vulnerable digital formats can be to attack, and DVD Jon’s efforts to break the encryption on DVD media produced the DECSS code. DECSS was written to strip the CSS encryption from the DVD media and succeeded phenomenally, to much outcry from the entertainment industry and movie studios. DECSS has provided us with the relatively idiot proof tools now available for end users like you and me to backup and copy our purchased DVD disks.

Obviously the organisations and governing body’s behind HDDVD and Blu-Ray were anxious not to make the same mistake twice, and created a new kind of encryption for these two new formats. It is called AACS. Hopefully you can tell where this story is going, and I’m grinning whilst typing it. AACS has already been cracked, to what extent depends on who you believe, but the fact is, it has been proven that copies can be made from disks protected by AACS.

Not wanting to take too much pleasure from other’s misfortune, I can’t help but think they might have brought this all on themselves. Rather than build a solid and secure encryption system, AACS like so many other organisations prefer to rely on the hope that nobody will discover their ‘secrets’ and take the decision to sue the pants off anyone who does, which is certainly a very negative way to look at such an important issue. It certainly didn’t work with DVD’s, so why should it now with the new generation of media? I have one message should anyone from AACS read this, proactive, not reactive!

Anyway, the story goes that a small Java application called BackupHDDVD was released at the end of 2006 by a hacker named ‘Muslix64‘ onto the DVD forums at doom9.org, and as you read this easy to use GUI tools are already available to backup HDDVD’s. The movies themselves have even uploaded to Bittorrent trackers for anyone to download in all of their High-Definition glory. This marked somewhat of a victory for hackers, pirates and film fanatics but the real victory I feel is for the Open Source community.

Now whilst HDDVD has been designed to run on new HDDVD players, it has also been designed to run on PC’s. This raises a few problems for Open Source user’s such as myself. Firstly, AACS encryption needs very fast and up to date hardware to play, and the people behind it would prefer for it to be played on only the newest hardware, so much so that if a HDDVD is attempted to be played on an average PC with a VGA connection to the monitor, the signal will be deliberately degraded. Now isn’t that nice of them!

Moving back to the issue of Open Source, AACS as with CSS has been licenced for Microsoft Windows, but not Linux, meaning that even with the correct hardware configuration HDDVD’s will not play on a machine running Linux. DECSS solved this issue for DVD’s, and my Linux box will now quite happily play any DVD I throw in, even if I may be using a potentially illegal method to do it, and although a similar solution does not yet exist for AACS content on Linux, the release of BackupHDDVD should bring this about soon enough.

The fact of the matter is that I should not have to use Microsoft Windows to watch my legally purchased content, I should not have to spend hundreds of pounds to upgrade my hardware, and I should not have my picture quality deliberately degraded by the Hollywood studio’s as a punishment for not adhering to their ‘rules’ on what hardware and software I can use to play their content! All I can say is, roll on ‘DEAACS’ for Linux!

Jonathan

For further reading I can highly recommend Peter Gutmann’s paper entitled “A Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection” which gives a much better background to the restrictions in DRM and next generation high definition content.

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