What happens with digital rights management in the real world?

Yeah, yeah, we know how technical that title sounds. Certainly not a big grabber of a headline. But it was written by Brits, you know. And it’s info we here at beautiful downtown TVWriter™ think everybody who creates and then releases his/her brainchildren into the interweb stream should know:

Woman using iPad tablet computer at home to browse iTunes digital music storeby Cory Doctorow

I’ve been writing about “digital rights management” (DRM) for years in this column, but here I am, about to write about it again. That’s because DRM – sometimes called “copy protection software” or “digital restrictions management” – is one of the most salient, and least understood, facts about technology in the contemporary world.

When you get into a discussion about DRM, you often find yourself arguing about whether and when copying and sharing should be allowed. Forget that for now. It’s beside the point, for reasons that will shortly be clear. Instead, let’s talk about the cold, hard legal, technical, marketplace and normative realities of DRM. Let’s talk about what happens with DRM in the real world.

In the real world, “bare” DRM doesn’t really do much. Before governments enacted laws making compromising DRM illegal (even if no copyright infringement took place), DRM didn’t survive contact with the market for long. That’s because technologically, DRM doesn’t make any sense. For DRM to work, you have to send a scrambled message (say, a movie) to your customer, then give your customer a program to unscramble it. Anyone who wants to can become your customer simply by downloading your player or buying your device – “anyone” in this case includes the most skilled technical people in the world. From there, your adversary’s job is to figure out where in the player you’ve hidden the key that is used to unscramble the message (the movie, the ebook, song, etc). Once she does that, she can make her own player that unscrambles your files. And unless it’s illegal to do this, she can sell her app or device, which will be better than yours, because it will do a bunch of things you don’t want it to do: allow your customers to use the media they buy on whatever devices they own, allow them to share the media with friends, to play it in other countries, to sell it on as a used good, and so on.

The only reason to use DRM is because your customers want to do something and you don’t want them to do it. If someone else can offer your customers a player that does the stuff you hate and they love, they’ll buy it. So your DRM vanishes.

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