Control vs. usability: What’s DRM’s future?

University of Minnesota researcher sums up digital rights management

Digital rights management is a chimera that content owners use to pretend their content is not digital. As a technology, DRM has had an almost unblemished record of failure and as a business model the record has been just about as bad. About the only person who has made somewhat of a success with DRM has called for its abandonment, at least in a major area of current use. But this reality has not diminished the ardor that content owners have for the idea. Given all of the above, what is the future of DRM in the Internet?

As he does from time to time, University of Minnesota researcher Andrew Odlyzko has just published a pithy little paper (actually an extended abstract) that wonderfully summarizes the state and probable future of DRM in the Internet context.

Odlyzko politely says that “the record of DRM so far is not too inspiring." That is far kinder than I feel. As far as I know every major DRM system where the customer has possession of the computer on which it is used has been broken.

Organizations such as the Trusted Computing Group have been working diligently for years on ways to cripple your computer to protect (among other things) DRM systems. That technology, while installed in many modern personal computers, does not seem to have gone that far — thank goodness. The tradeoff of having a computer that refused, for example, to run applications I want to seems to me to be too big a price to pay to prolong DRM dreams (Also see Richard Stallman’s take.)

Odlyzko does a good job describing the attraction content owners have for the idea of DRM. They think they can use it to control your usage of content you buy and maybe even discriminate based on what they think you might be willing to pay. He notes that there is often a tradeoff between the use of DRM and usability. Apple has shown it is possible to produce a useable DRM system mostly by making sure that the majority of things people would want to do were permitted by the DRM, such as making copies and using it on multiple devices and computers.

Most other systems get this wrong. But even Apple would rather do without DRM (See "DRM-less music? Let consumers decide.").

Odlyzko notes in passing that the content industry has never been all that forward thinking about new technology. They have fought every technological advance in the area of content reproduction (See "Never met a tech they didn’t hate.")Odlyzko does conclude that DRM will not go away — content owners just think there is far too much money at stake. It may be a lot to them, but it’s not a big part of the Internet economy (See "El Dorado on the ’Net.")

His last point in the article is that DRM is too important to content owners to go away, but that “usability will continue to matter much more than tight control."

In the end, the title Odlyzko chose for his article says it all: “Digital rights management: desirable, inevitable, and almost irrelevant."

Disclaimer: For Harvard, two of those three is not bad, but the above review is mine, not the university’s.

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