Another Lousy DRMed Product

by on March 2, 2006

Regular readers of TLF won’t be the least bit suprised to learn that I loved this criticism of DRM by Scott Granneman at Security Focus:

One of my favorite magazines is The New Yorker. I’ve been reading it for years, and it never fails to impress me with its vast subject matter, brilliant writing, and the depth, wit, and attention it brings to important matters. When it was announced over a year ago that The Complete New Yorker: Eighty Years of the Nation’s Greatest Magazine would be released on eight DVDs, I immediately put in my pre-order. After it arrived, I took out the first DVD and stuck it in my Linux box, expecting that I could start looking at the collected issues.

No dice. The issues were available as DjVu files. No problem; there are DjVu readers for Linux, and it’s an open format. Yet none of them worked. It turned out that The New Yorker added DRM to their DjVu files, turning an open format into a closed, proprietary, encrypted format, and forcing consumers to install the special viewer software included on the first DVD. Of course, that software only works on Windows or Mac OS X, so Linux users are out of luck (and no, it doesn’t work under WINE … believe me, I tried).

One of the great things about open standards is that they enable a breathtaking amount of division of labor. If I write this post in HTML format, and you have an HTML-compliant broswer, then I can be assured that you will be able to read my post. Maybe you’re using Internet Explorer on Windows. Maybe you’re using Firefox on Linux. Maybe you’re reading this on a BlackBerry. Doesn’t matter. As long as I follow the HTML spec, you’ll be able to read my post.

Moreover, you can probably do more than just display the post on your screen. You can print it, email it, or cut and paste a quote into your term paper. If you’re blind, you can have screen-reading software read the text to you. Your browser might have advanced search functionality, or the ability to reformat the text in a larger font or a different color scheme. If English isn’t your native language, your browser might have a translation facility that will display the post in your native language. You might use RSS software to aggregate my post with those of your other favorite bloggers for mor convenient access. Or, perhaps you’ll use a tool like wget to download the entire TLF to your laptop for offline browsing.

All of this functionality is available because the web is built on open standards. If I were inventing my own format for the TLF web site, I wouldn’t have the time or resources to provide tools to do all those things. But because I’m using the same format as millions of other people, my posts get all that functionality for free. Thousands of people I’ve never heard of are spending time building tools that make my content more useful–at no cost to either me or (in most cases) my readers.

DRM turns this notion of extensibility and division of labor on its head. When you build a DRM system, you have to decide, in advance, everything that the user will be allowed to do with your content. Then you have to individually approve each and every device or software product that will access the content. You can’t let just anybody’s software and hardware access your content, because that might undermine your copy protection scheme. And because you, or a small number of partners, are providing all the hardware and software that will access the content, you have to personally implement all the functionality yourself. Third parties won’t release products that extend the functionality of the platform, unless you negotiate a licensing agreement with them first–and many people who would otherwise be glad to contribute new functionality won’t want to go to that much trouble.

As a result, DRMed platforms are inevitably stunted compared with their open competitors. It’s simply not possible for any one organization–even a big company like Apple or Microsoft, to anticipate and support every conceivable use for content. There’s no room for the experimentation and intra-platform competition that makes an open platform like the Web thrive and grow. Customers with non-standard requirements–Linux users, wealthy audiophiles, blind people with screen-reading software–are simply out of luck.

That’s why Granneman’s New Yorker DVD sucks so much. The people building the software weren’t bad programmers. The problem was that The New Yorker, or whatever software firm they hired to create the DVD, doesn’t have the resources to build software to provide even a tiny fraction of the functionality available for popular open formats. I’m sure they weren’t trying to exclude Linux users, but it just wasn’t economical to develop a Linux version of their software.

This isn’t just a matter of growing pains–it’s how DRM has to work. DRM is designed to be incompatible with unapproved devices. It’s designed to only work in ways the platform designer approves ahead of time. That’s the only way it can hope to prevent unauthorized copying.

Content providers should realize that they’re shooting themselves in the foot when they penalize their paying customers by inflicting DRM on them. This sort of thing doesn’t stop piracy (who trades bootleg copies of the New Yorker anyway?) but it does make their product a lot less useful, and it generates ill will and bad press for the company selling it.

Granneman’s article is worth reading in full.

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