I read a blog post today by Simon Phipps (DRM and the Death of a Culture) which was a well reasoned complaint about the constraints that DRM can place on use of content. Yet no matter how well reasoned, nor argued from which position, these arguments on DRM don’t matter. They don’t matter because DRM will never work on static content. This is so basic, so obvious that I’m not sure why anyone ever thought it would. In fact, let’s make it more general: all copy protection technologies, past, present, and future do not and will not prevent copying of non-interactive media. In fact they’re a colossal waste of time, effort, and money that only serve to inconvenience legitimate users (and as Phipps points out, kill culture).
Certainly, DRM can make it difficult for people to make exact bit-for-bit copies of content. To which I say "so what?" Look at it this way, the movie industry has (or at least claims it has) a significant problem with people sneaking recording equipment into theaters, taking a copy of a feature film, and then distributing it over the Internet. What copy prevention technology can deal with that? Surely the resulting recording has to be grossly inferior to the digital master, but here’s the thing: lots of people don’t care. If there’s a demand for poor quality copies, then there’s a larger demand for better quality copies, but there is a negligible difference between the demand for a very good copy and a perfect copy.

Let me introduce two rules of copying:

  1. If you can see or hear non-interactive audiovisual media in the privacy of your own home, with equipment that you own or otherwise have control of, then you can make decent copies of that media that are unencumbered by copy protection technologies.
  2. If you can do it, someone with commercial equipment and financial motivation can do it faster and better.

So what are we to do? As someone who wouldn’t mind earning money from static creative content, I’m as interested as anyone else in finding a way to protect potential revenue in a digital era.

I think it’s unrealistic to attempt to implement a regime that extracts a price from every single individual who reads some commercial work I produce. It’s worse than unreasonable, it’s anti-intellectual, it’s anti-culture, and just plain wrong. In an ideal world, the people with the means to pay for content do so, and the people who can’t don’t. Call me idealistic, but I think that this really works in practice. Perhaps not for the mega-corporations who invest a hundred million in a project and hope for a huge payback, but that era is coming to a rapid close no matter what. I think it works in the smaller sphere of the artist/creative hoping to earn a decent living. Even so, it’s not small scale sharing between end users who know each other that’s the problem. It’s commercial pirating and mass distribution through file sharing networks that rank as unfair use.

It’s here that we see the technologies that will be of use, most notably copy detection software. These tools allow copyright holders to trace the source of pirated copies and to identify illegal content in sharing networks. In the sphere of pirating, copy detection software provides a valuable forensic trail that can aid in convictions (each imperfect copy will have its own unique digital signature). In ethical file sharing networks, these algorithms allow the network to reduce or prevent illegal use.

So why do we see such a huge push from the larger media companies towards DRM? Because if it ever worked, it would give them control of the channel of distribution. In their ideal world, all content would be wrapped with DRM. You wouldn’t be able to send video clips of your kid’s birthday party to their grandparents without purchasing a "low cost personal use" DRM certificate because granny’s Monolithic Media Player wouldn’t play anything without it. There’s another compelling example why pervasive DRM will never, ever take off.

If big media controls the digital channel, then it’s much harder for them to be disintermediated. If they can’t control the channel, then any garage band can put samples of their content into file sharing networks, and the ones who are truly good will rise in popularity through direct person-to-person "buzz". Then some people will start paying for their content online, simply because it’s the right thing to do. Then they’ll play gigs, please their audiences, earn a living, and the big media companies will be left completely out of the loop. Big media’s fight to control the channel is a fight for their life, and it’s already long lost. Like someone fatally pinned to a tree by a car, they’re dead, they just don’t realize it yet.

DRM is dead. It just doesn’t realize it yet.