Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Gastric DRM

"When political action gets to be as much fun and games as it got to be for Abbie Hoffman and some of his friends in the late 1960s, a huge bawdy confused drama in which you have a rousing revolutionary-hero role and the whole world is watching, you don't really have to have tangible political victory to feel 'empowered.' You are already getting a kind of gratification that is the envy of millions of others who would love to get themselves so solidly into the act. The drama becomes an end unto itself."
- Walter Truett Anderson, Reality Isn't What It Used To Be

If the Vietnam War provided a generation with the opportunity to, as Anderson would write, cast themselves in the role of revolutionary hero against a corrupt, evil establishment, then it's possible to argue that digital rights management (or DRM) serves much the same purpose in this generation. The leaders of the movement are as well-known as the leaders of the anti-war movement were in the '60's -- it's hard to argue that Cory Doctorow isn't as well known among intellectuals today as Abbie Hoffman was then. And like the '60's, the '00's have spawned a whole host of DRM-agitators who cast themselves as revolutionary heroes fighting an evil establishment who wants nothing less than to control how you purchase and view media.

They're all horribly misguided, of course, reducing a complicated issue down to simple catch-phrases and good-guy/bad-guy Manichean thinking. (Heck, even the Wikipedia page on DRM is a giant advertisement for the anti-DRM argument and those who champion it.) Not that you can convince any of them of that. But maybe I can convince you.

First, a quick review of the concept. Digital rights management is a catch-all term that refers to any number of technologies with differing implementations but similar goals -- trying to protect the rights of content creators and distributors to profit from their creative work by making it difficult for people to enjoy protected work without paying for it. Put in those terms, which are generally the terms that DRM apologists use, the concept doesn't sound so bad. After all, the right of creators to profit from their creations is also an American ideal -- so much so that the U.S. Constitution specifically grants Congress the authority to pass laws to protect this right, at least for limited periods of time. (This also, ironically, makes the right of creators to profit from their work one of the few actual rights enumerated in the Constitution rather than in the Bill of Rights.)

DRM opponents, meanwhile, argue that once you purchase a work, you should have the right to enjoy that work in whatever format you choose. Buy a CD with a song, and you should be able to copy that song to your MP3 player to take it 'on the go' with you, and even burn it to a different CD so that you don't have to play your valuable CD in your car stereo, where it might be damaged by sun if it sits out on the passenger seat too long. Now, these arguments aren't in themselves bad arguments, even if they're not entirely 'portable' arguments, either. (Does your purchase of a book entitle you to make photocopies of every page so that you can leave the actual book in your personal library and only consult the loose-leaf copies when you want to kick back in the hammock on a summer afternoon?) The big problem I have with these arguments is that...well, they're misleading. DRM opponents like to portray the big media companies as hoping to milk consumers out of every last dime purchasing and re-purchasing the same content they've been buying for the past 5, 10, or 25 years, simply in different formats. In some cases, they'll accuse the media companies of forcing consumers to repurchase content they just bought ten minutes ago, when it comes to digital media.

One counter-example to this argument can be found on the recently released Special Edition DVD of Pixar's WALL-E. When you purchase the Special Edition DVD, you also get a code. Insert the DVD into a computer loaded with iTunes, and the DVD allows you to enter the code and access the iTunes store to download a copy of WALL-E at no extra charge. The copy you download is the same as any other iTunes movie you might purchase -- it can be played on any device you've authorized your iTunes account on, so if you have a desktop computer, a laptop, and an AppleTV unit, all of which are authorized to play iTunes purchases, any or all of them can play WALL-E even if you don't have the DVD handy.

I suspect DRM opponents will at least tentatively applaud this feature, even if they decry the use of iTunes DRM that limits the ability of the downloader to make copies of the movie at will. They might even suggest that other media companies follow Pixar/Disney/Apple's lead. (It's no big surprise, and yet another ironic turn in this tale, that both Apple and Pixar are run by Steve Jobs, who himself is on record as saying he's not a fan of DRM even as Apple's iTunes store is lambasted as one of the largest purveyors of DRM-protected media in the U.S.)

Here's the irony -- this is the future of DRM. This is what every media company would love to do, if only they could be certain that the extra copies they're giving away are only going to people who've already paid for one.

Allow me to make an analogy, and by doing so, change the subject for a minute.

Prior to 1967, morbidly obese people had few options when it came to losing weight. They could hope to have the willpower required to diet themselves to a healthier weight, or become gravely injured or diseased. The former is rare even today, and the latter is so dangerous that there's no wonder that no medical industry appeared appealing to the obese and offering to infect them with tapeworms. Then, in 1967, the first gastric bypass surgery was performed. (Today, gastric bypass is but one class of what's called bariatric surgeries, but for the purpose of this analogy we're just going to look at the gastric procedure.) The first surgeries were effective, but fairly brutal -- my mother had one such surgery, and though she did lose an astonishing amount of weight, she has also lived ever since with an evil-looking scar running down her midriff from near the base of her sternum down to her navel.

The procedure evolved, and today most gastric bypasses are performed laparoscopically -- that is, using a number of smaller incisions to introduce instruments (including cameras so the surgeon can see) instead of one large open incision. My sister had a laparoscopic bypass in the 1990s, and also lost significant amounts of weight, and has significantly less visible scarring than Mom does. Someday, perhaps, when medical procedures are performed the way Dr. McCoy does them on Star Trek, there may not be a need for incisions at all.

The evolution of DRM is much like the evolution of gastric bypass. Recording technologies have always been looked at with skepticism by rights distributors, and some have even taken legal action to prevent the spread of new technologies, but there was really no other way for a rights owner or distributor to protect their investment in the pre-DRM days.

Currently, we're in the pre-laparoscopic days of DRM, where the technology simply isn't advanced enough to allow for truly delicate and refined uses. DRM in this era basically acts like a blunt instrument or a gigantic scar across the content of your digital media -- not because companies want to prevent you from enjoying your media (certainly no more than 1970's surgeons enjoyed giving people massive abdominal scars), but because that's just the state of the art of the process today.

Pixar/Disney/Apple's DRM on WALL-E shows what a laparoscopic DRM might look like -- with confidence that only authorized purchasers are using the special feature of the DVD, you can now put that DVD on multiple different devices perfectly legally. More to the point, you don't have to figure out how to do that -- the content distributor has done that for you, as a way of differentiating that media from other media in the marketplace. People clearly want to enjoy their media in multiple formats -- that's why the DRM opponents' arguments are at least partly valid -- so media companies want to provide that flexibility, just not at the expense of swallowing a digital tapeworm (which is the only current alternative if you decide you don't want the scar of DRM on your media).

Perhaps some day (though hopefully not as long as the 24th century), DRM will be nearly invisible, allowing people who've purchased the right to do so the ability to port media to unlimited different formats and platforms. For today, though, the existing DRM is what we have.

You might think, as long as I'm being an apologist for Apple, the RIAA and MPAA, and any other group that wants to restrict 'digital freedoms', let me also say that I think that the 'pirates' who specialize in breaking technological encryption and DRM schemes are in fact doing more good than harm. They're not entirely blameless, given that the focus of new DRM systems tends to be more on how to make the systems more difficult for pirates to defeat rather than on how to make them more accessible to more media platforms and formats. But still, if the pirates simply gave up tomorrow and surrendered to a specific flavor of DRM, there would be far less motivation for existing content distributors to invest in new DRM systems. Given that the pirates see themselves as heroes, though (much as Doctorow and the Electronic Frontier Foundation do), I expect that I'll tweak a few noses by saying that, rather than being heroes, they're really no more than a necessary evil in the larger story of the development of better and better types of DRM. (And if you want to go after me for the use of the term 'pirate' in describing these technologists, let me remind you that the aforementioned Jobs flew a pirate flag over the building at Apple Computer where the first Macintosh was being developed -- it's not just a pejorative term of art in this discussion.)

Though given Anderson's quote at the top of this essay, DRM opponents and pirates don't have to actually win the fight against DRM to be gratified by their role in the fight. So in effect, we all get what we want out of the process in the end.

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