DRM, consumers and the God chip

I just had a stimulating conversation with Howard Silverman, secretary of the Secure Video Processor Alliance, and Broadband Communication Group's Brian Sprague, vice president of marketing for Set-Top Boxes and DTV, whose company is a founding member of the alliance.

The SVP Alliance is "an industry association dedicated to the adoption of SVP content-protection technology in digital home networks and portable devices." To put that another way, the alliance is trying to get video content distribution networks and manufacturers of video playback devices to use the SVP Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology to prevent piracy.

The SVP DRM system is based in a chip on the viewing device and looks at datastreams to see if they are SVP protected and whether the associated rights allow the video to be shown on that display. If the content is authorized it is decrypted on the fly and voilà!

The system is based on some kind of digital certificate system, with every SVP chip having a unique ID and certificate against which specific content is authorized for a specific time period. Silverman told me the extra electronics adds little to the display device's cost.

The argument for using SVP is that video piracy costs the industry money. The alliance references the Motion Picture Association of America's claim of $61 billion of lost revenue in 2005. This is, of course, a hugely debatable number and presupposes that without piracy that revenue would actually be acquired, but that's a topic for another column.

On the face of it, the SVP proposition sounds reasonable: A low-cost embedded hardware solution that provides transparent, robust content protection. Unfortunately the reality will not be quite as good.

What the SVP Alliance is really claiming is it will have a God chip, a chip so sophisticated and powerful that it can't be hacked, won't have significant bugs and will do its job cheaply and, in effect, perfectly.

The biggest problem is that a God chip is not possible. If a human mind can build it, a human mind can defeat it. For this reason it is a certainty that, should the SVP system become ubiquitous in consumer electronics, lots of really clever people will eventually figure out how to defeat it. Just consider that Apple's iTunes 7 DRM was hacked exactly eight hours after it was announced!

The next issue is whether the alliance's DRM system will be bug-free. This isn't just dependent on the SVP chip, but on the ecosystem it will be part of. Even if the chip is flawless, interactions with other components and the actual content it protects means bugs will appear. These could be as minor as video artifacts or as major as preventing playback, but something will go wrong.

Occasionally SVP-enabled devices will fail, and failed DRM systems are a problem. Have you reauthorized your iTunes library? A Google search will show you that people spit teeth to get the job done. Oh, and as of this writing, iTunes 7 prevents purchased content from being played on Motorola SLVR and ROKR iTunes phones!

What's interesting is the way the SVP chaps talk about DRM. They say things like "consumers want to be able to easily move content from one device to another." And this is true; it isn't easy because the industry hasn't made it easy. Look at the back of the DirecTV personal video recorder: You'll find USB ports that don't work because DirecTV has dumbed down their version of TiVo!

The SVP chaps also say DRM "keeps honest people honest." Is it just me or is that the weakest argument you have ever heard for DRM?

I've said it before: Once content becomes digital the genie is out of the bottle forever and DRM in any form won't put it back in. With DRM, the only people to lose out will be consumers whose use of content will be made more complicated, more frustrating and more expensive.

Learn more about this topic

CTIA - Microsoft pledges DRM investments for mobile


DRM-roll for consumer privacy protection


Researcher: DRM technology fails in practice


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