Over at the PFF blog, co-blogger Solveig Singleton has some points about the connection between fair use and DRM technology. Some are fair points, others I disagree with, but I think this one is particularly worth commenting on:
DRM does respond to demand. Take interoperability, for example. This is important to consumers. Thus the market began with many types of not-particularly-interoperable DRM. But now there are all kinds of interoperability ventures going on for all types of media. It’s unlikely the market will converge to one… but it is converging.
Lots of people are talking about DRM interoperability. But so far, none have been widely deployed. There’s a good reason for this: genuinely interoperable DRM is a contradiction in terms.
Why? It’s difficult to explain in non-technical language, but I think the fundamental reason is this: the restrictions of a DRM scheme are enforced by devices, not files. That means that every single device that accesses DRMed content must be tightly controlled to ensure it doesn’t become a conduit for unauthorized access to the copyrighted materials.
Therefore, a truly interoperable DRM system–one which anyone is free to participate in–isn’t just a difficult technical challenge. It’s a flat contradiction in terms. A DRM scheme’s security is only as strong as its weakest device. Every software has bugs, and each time a new device is built, it’s a new opportunity for a hacker to examine it and find flaws. Moreover, as flaws are found (which there always will be) the DRM scheme must be constantly upgraded to fix those flaws. Those upgrades must be done in a synchronized fashion, otherwise upgrades to one device might break compatibility with the others. Coordinating those updates becomes harder as the number of licensees increases.
As a result, the specifications for the DRM scheme must remain secret, and every compatible device must be approved by the owner of the DRM scheme before it’s allowed on the market. You can have “interoperability” in the very limited sense that Microsoft’s DRM scheme is interoperable: multiple companies all share Microsoft’s DRM format and so their files can be shared. But that works because the participating companies are all Microsoft licensees, and Microsoft tightly controls who is allowed to participate and what kinds of devices they’re allowed to make.
Real interoperability as it has existed in the technology industry, is quite different. Modern PC hardware is a good example of this. The processor, the memory, the hard drive, the mother board, the graphics card, and plenty of other parts are all built to publicly available specifications. For each part, there are multiple vendors (Intel and AMD for processors, Seagate and Western Digital for hard drives, ATI and nVidia for graphics cards, etc) competing for the business of computer builders. Any new company that knows how to build a part better or cheaper can build it without asking anyone’s permission. No one–Microsoft, IBM, Intel, or anyone else–has the power to exclude anyone from the PC industry or dictate what features a new PC device can have.
The “interoperability” that DRM builders are talking about isn’t like that at all. DRM interoperability is a closed system, with only those vendors who’ve gotten the permission of the DRM maker allowed to participate. If someone wants to do something that the DRM maker isn’t interested in, that’s just too bad.
Why does this matter? The PC industry has been so astonishingly innovative precisely because there wasn’t a central authority approving every device before it went on the market. Innovation often happens precisely when people mix-and-match technologies from different vendors in ways unforseen by either. And it’s vital that new firms be allowed to enter the market, even if their products threaten the market position of entrenched firms.
Moreover, hobbyists and open-source programmers are completely locked out of DRM schemes. Hobbyists can’t be given access to the secret specifications of DRM systems because there’s not way to prevent them from sharing them with others, or to inspect their devices to make sure they implement the DRM scheme successfully. Open source projects are locked out because by definition, the operation of an open source application cannot be secret, and anyone could modify open source applications to disable the DRM restrictions. The first successfully personal computer (the Aople II)was built by a hobbyists. And the most popular web server (Apache) and the #2 and #3 web browsers (Mozilla/Netscape/Firefox and Safari/Konquerer) are built on open source foundations. If you exclude hobbyists and open source programmers from the DRM marketplace, you’re forgoing a lot of potential innovation.
DRM vendors (and before that, copy protection vendors) have a long history of making promises they couldn’t deliver. Every DRM scheme ever made has been broken. Yet they continue to promise that the next scheme will work better. By the same token, DRM vendors are promising a bright future where all DRM schemes will work seamlessly with each other. But that will never happen, because open DRM, like unbreakable DRM, is a contradiction in terms.