Why DRM will never work

Digital rights management has been much talked about for the last few years because it addresses a big issue: content piracy. The problem is that everyone from children to grandparents can rip tracks from a CD and share them with friends around the world.

But wait! Twenty years ago you could tape material from a record and illegally share the content by dropping it in the mail. What's changed? The fact is it is now easier to rip a CD than copy a tape or a record, the quality is more or less perfect, the speed of transfer between individuals has gone through the roof, and the cost of copying (time and media cost) has dropped like a brick.

But content piracy is not a new problem for record and movie companies; it has just grown to become a larger financial issue. So it isn't surprising that content owners and publishers are interested in DRM.

All ethically minded adults would agree that, given our culture and laws and no matter how inflated the price of CDs or other media might be, those who hold the copyright have the entitlement to apply whatever controls they please.

The only problem is controlling the use of content once it becomes digital is impossible because digital technologies for encoding, decoding, storing and transporting content are all about moving bits, not atoms, and you can't defend bits.

You can defend atoms. You put the atoms in a box and put a lock (more atoms) on it. Not so with bits. It would seem obvious that bits are different but that's what DRM ignores. And that's what the high-tech vendors pushing DRM products gloss over and try to get around by using - guess what - atoms!

For example, Microsoft's Windows Media comes with a full and extensive DRM system called Microsoft Windows Media DRM. But to make this system (or any other DRM system) work, atoms that store content bits have to be put inside boxes with virtual locks that are controlled by DRM bits.

The problem is that if the boxes of atoms - the digital devices - are to be secure, their functionality must be limited. This means that if you want to license Microsoft Windows Media DRM for your hardware product you'll need to jump through some hoops that will have a profound effect on your design.

In Gearhead this week we took a look at the ZapMedia ZapStation, an attempt at an all-in-one multimedia center (CD, CDR, DVD, MP3, streaming media and others). One thing that seemed odd about the box's basic design was you could import content only by FTP with no support for Windows shares and no remote content management. Once the content is in the device you can burn CDs (DRM rights permitting) and delete content, but that is all you can do. And the hard disk is not upgradable.

The reason it was designed this way is Microsoft licensing. Because ZapMedia wanted to support Windows Media, which it saw as important to product positioning, it had to comply with Microsoft's licensing requirements. These stipulate that acquired content can't be exported, has to be encrypted on disk, and so on. The result for ZapStation is hugely compromised functionality.

And even with all of this control, you still can burn a CD on the ZapStation, load that into a PC and RIP it into MP3 files. Once again we see trying to control bits is like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.

Building devices that are closed systems to control bits is futile and a wasted effort. Those who want to be ethical in their use of bits will be ethical without the aid of atoms, and those who will act unethically won't be stopped by atoms.

The consequence is that DRM will never work. Many content owners and hardware vendors think it is the only way to go, as they can't imagine not having control and are unwilling to admit the truth: No matter what you do, you can't control how people will use your bits once they have 'em.

Send some bits to backspin@gibbs.com.

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