Felten on Mossberg on DRM

by on October 20, 2005 · 2 comments

Walt Mossberg has a great column criticizing digital rights management technology. He gets the fundamental point that DRM harms consumers by needlessly restricting how, when, and where they can consume content they have legally purchased:

I believe that consumers should have broad leeway to use legally purchased music and video for personal, noncommercial purposes in any way they want–as long as they don’t engage in mass distribution. They should be able to copy it to as many personal digital devices as they own, convert it to any format those devices require, and play it in whatever locations, at whatever times, they choose.

And he suggests boycotting DRM’ed products, such as copy-protected CDs, that overly restrict consumer choice.

However, he makes a fundamental error:

Instead of using DRM to stop some individual from copying a song to give to her brother, the industry should be focusing on ways to use DRM to stop the serious pirates–people who upload massive quantities of music and videos to so-called file-sharing sites, or factories in China that churn out millions of pirate CDs and DVDs.

Princeton CS professor Ed Felten’s reaction is right on the money:

This is a nice vision, but it’s not really possible. It’s abundantly clear by now that no DRM system can stop serious pirates. A DRM system that stops serious pirates, and simultaneously gives broad leeway to ordinary users, is even harder to imagine. It’s not going to happen.

No one has ever invented an un-crackable DRM system. When a new DRM system is released, it invariably takes just a few weeks for someone to release a cracking tool.

That’s not a coincidence. Bits are inherently copyable. Building an un-copyable bit isn’t just a difficult engineering challenge. On a general-purpose computer, it’s impossible. If a computer can read a piece of data, it can make a copy of it. The best you can do is to obfuscate the content so that figuring out how to make the copy is difficult and time-consuming. But that kind of obfuscation won’t stop a professional pirate or a hobbyist cracker with a lot of time on his hands.

Incidentally, it’s worth noting that probably the world’s most famous DRM cracker, Jon Lech Johansen has moved from his native Norway to San Diego to work for Michael Robertson, the the founder of the ill-fated MP3.com and (later) Lindows/Linspire. Johansen produced software to crack the copy-protection on DVDs at the age of 16, and more recently he’s cracked the copy-protection on Apple’s iTunes Music Store. It’s not clear what he’ll be doing, but it’s a safe bet that Hollywood and the recording industry won’t like it.

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