HTML5's overseer says DRM's true purpose is to prevent legal forms of innovation

Ian Hickson, the googler who is overseeing the HTML5 standard at the W3C, has written a surprisingly frank piece on the role of DRM. As he spells out in detail, the point of DRM isn't to stop illegal copying, it's to stop legal forms of innovation from taking place. He shows that companies that deploy DRM do so in order to prevent individuals, groups and companies from innovating in ways that disrupt their profitability:

The purpose of DRM is to give content providers leverage against creators of playback devices.

Content providers have leverage against content distributors, because distributors can't legally distribute copyrighted content without the permission of the content's creators. But if that was the only leverage content producers had, what would happen is that users would obtain their content from those content distributors, and then use third-party content playback systems to read it, letting them do so in whatever manner they wanted.

Here are some examples:

A. Paramount make a movie. A DVD store buys the rights to distribute this movie from Paramount, and sells DVDs. You buy the DVD, and want to play it. Paramount want you to sit through some ads, so they tell the DVD store to put some ads on the DVD labeled as "unskippable".

Without DRM, you take the DVD and stick it into a DVD player that ignores "unskippable" labels, and jump straight to the movie.

This is the first third of my recent Guardian column, What I wish Tim Berners-Lee understood about DRM, but there's two other important points to make, apropos the W3C:

1. DRM always involves patents with onerous licensing terms that are incompatible with the W3C's patent policy, because patent licensing is the hook by which those disruptive -- but legal -- features can be prohibited

2. DRM can't be implemented in free/open code. For DRM to work, anyone who implements it has to design their implementation to prevent users from changing it. This is reflected in the "robustness" rules that always accompany DRM licensing, which always prohibit "user modifiability."

In other words:

1. DRM's purpose is to prevent legal innovation

2. DRM requires onerous patent licenses

3. DRM is incompatible with free/open code and systems

Discussions about DRM often land on the fundamental problem with DRM: that it doesn't work, or worse, that it is in fact mathematically impossible to make it work. (via /.)

"There has grown up in the minds of certain groups in this country the notion that because a man or corporation has made a profit out of the public for a number of years, the government and the courts are charged with the duty of guaranteeing such profit in the future, even in the face of changing circumstances and contrary to public interest. This strange doctrine is not supported by statute or common law. Neither individuals nor corporations have any right to come into court and ask that the clock of history be stopped, or turned back." - Robert A Heinlein, Life-Line


  1. Maybe this is the work of the anti-DRM faction.  By these idiots fighting this rearguard action in an attempt to lengthen the life of old-fashioned clunky un-tailored ads, in this world where individualisation is coming faster and faster, they’re binding resource and money into a system that will fail both because it will be irrelevant and because the marketing techniques are so outdated.

    My allowance will already have been spent on targeted opportunities that wooed me before this clunky junk even has the chance to annoy me.

  2. I’m confused. You say “Ian Hickson … has written a surprisingly frank piece on the role of DRM”, then you give a quote, then you say “This is the first third of my recent Guardian column.” Is the quote from Hickson, or from your column?

    1.  maybe some sloppy use of prepositional phrases and quote attribution on Cory’s part, but the link at the end clearly goes to Ian’s G+ post. Search the text and it’s clearer which parts Cory quotes and which parts are his own.

      1. Yes, but I don’t feel readers should have to click through the link and search the text to figure out the correct quote attribution. I hoped Cory would correct the text in response to my comment. (And, in any case, at the time of my comment there wasn’t even a link to Hickson’s post!)

    2. It is the same substance as the first third of his recent Guardian column. Metonymy is metonymous.

  3. FINALLY the ghosts of those Sheet-Music magnates will get revenge on those player-piano assholes…

  4. I’m afraid “legal innovation” sounds a bit like Prenda Law. Might “fair use” be a better way to say it?

    1. Not “innovation” within the field of law as with Prenda, but innovation that is ( for the moment, anyway ) still legal.

  5. HTML DRM (EME) proponents build up a rethoric how the availability of it will help people deploy video on the web (by not having to go trough flash/silverlight). 

    The reality is that the current state of affairs (for instance Google/Netflix via Widevine DRM) cannot help anybody except those who agree to undisclosed license agreements with Widevine.

    The W3Cs HTML WG charter explicitly defines goals of interoperability, independent implementation, authoring tools and community.

    EME is being used by browser vendors and the content industry to exclude exactly those chartered goals by going for Widevines DRM solution.

    This is fundamentally at odds with what the W3C should be doing according to its charter, and how EME is being used by browser vendors.

    Browser vendors are free to include whatever retarded piece of shit into their software they want. However it should not be W3Cs place to help them do it, nor condone it as a “standard” which it clearly can’t be under W3Cs charter.

  6. Every time I see an article on this subject, I find myself wondering why Microsoft and its ilk are even in the marketplace any more.

    Speaking for myself, I imagine – without evidence – that a system like Ubuntu will have a steep learning curve, that it’s designed for geeks, and my geek days were twenty years ago.  I would be so happy if I was wrong about that – if switching to an open OS is as easy as switching to Open Office was.  Because right now I can’t afford to be reading the manual for a week instead of working.

    If open-source software was able to have a budget for marketing, maybe a tipping point would be reached, and people like me would bid farewell to Windows for good.  But right now we don’t know enough, and aren’t desperate enough to overcome inertia.  (Of course, MS is always trying to change that.)

    1.  You are wrong about that! Ubuntu is dead easy. The hardest part is just figuring out where the familiar functions can be found in the slightly different UI, but it’s just an OS. If you’re even noticing it, it’s doing something wrong.

      1.  If Windows didn’t come preinstalled on nearly every PC sold, the canard of “Linux is way harder to install than Windows” would already be dead.

      2. DRM does make Ubuntu hard, though. Linux is capable of playing DRM and non-DRM content, but in order to do this, you have to do “weird” things to make it work.

        Want an example? Watch netflix.

        Yes, it’s possible to do in Ubuntu. Most users aren’t really going to know what a ppa is, though, nor are they going to know to look for one in order to get the software you need to perform this seemingly simple task.

        For me, that’s no problem. But I’ve been a Linux systems engineer for years, and I’ve been doing things in linux for well over a decade. My mom and my sister have not, and they would be missing out on these capabilities without my help.

        And really, it’s only been recently that you can install Ubuntu with even the ability to play things like mp3s at all. It use to be the case that you’d have to install some “weirdly” named packages to make it work.

        I agree, Ubuntu is easy, overall. I work on Ubuntu and I play on Ubuntu. I only have a Windows install for a couple games I play that don’t work in wine properly, and I don’t use OSX on my macbook air. Because content providers can’t control things like Ubuntu, though, they will not support it as long as they have this strange belief that DRM will do anything useful.

        1. I’m often dismayed that more Ubuntu proponents don’t try and simplify these things by making and offering newbies readily available, custom packages/scripts or what have you.

          Instead they shovel a bunch of command line stuff in their faces and wonder why so many go screaming back to Windows, etc.

          DISCLAIMER: I use Linux, Win 7, Win 8 and OS X.

      3. Well good, I want to be wrong.  Some of the replies are pretty intimidating, though, full of ppa and sudo dpkg.

        1. I don’t understand the ‘how’ of the commands. Just ‘type x in get y out’

          Granted my parents don’t like the hwole ‘what the hell is this black window with blinky cursor’ so eh.

      4. … Well, I found Unity inaccessible, Xfce incompatible with my hardware, and KDE inaccessible. I found the pop-up scrollbuttons inaccessible, and I understand newer versions make them harder to delete. I am considering LMDE so I can keep using Gnome 2 which is relatively accessible. It can be maddeningly hard to find a suitable operating system, distribution, and desktop environment, depending on your disabilities.

    2. I have Ubuntu on my netbook; I’ve been Microsoft-free for over two years. The only difficulties I’ve had with Ubuntu disappeared somewhere around Ubuntu 8 (currently on 12). Every friend that asks me to repair their virus-Trojan-spyware-riddled Windows installations, I hand them a USB with a Live image of Ubuntu and a card that says

      1: insert USB
      2: run Wubi
      3: take your first step into the 21st century.

    3.  Nope. It’s a piece of piss. Unity interface is vile, if you ask me, but there’s plenty of distros around that have a more traditional UI. And the good thing about Ubuntu is that there’s loads of help & support on the web for you should things go awry (though for everyday use, if anything breaks horribly, there’s not much that ‘sudo dpkg’ and ‘sudo fsck’ won’t rescue – lots simpler than rescuing a b0rked windows box.

      1.  Well, Unity can be disliked, but even Unity (via Compiz, mostly) still beats crappy dysfunctional Win7+ UI. I have to suffer though the latter at my workplace and, boy, do I get tired of the window manager that cannot manage windows decently.

        1. Unity was designed around people who don’t have any disabilities and can’t imagine having any disabilities.

          They imagine everyone has enough coordination to use tapping, touchpad gestures, or scrollwheels, so they don’t need scrollbars. They require special patches to disable tapping for disabled users with certain theoretically Ubuntu-approved computers. They imagine everyone has enough coordination to type left-handed, so they rely on alt+tab for everything.

          1.  I understand where you are coming from, but probably that has to be “on the initial install” or something.  Because there are settings to keybind and re-keybind the heck out of everything WM-related, including alt-tab, launchbar and HUD; focus on mouseover, if nesessary, and scrollbars show/hide can be set as well. Again, Unity can be not to everyone’s liking (and for that, we have other WM/DEs), and might be lacking in other areas, but some of your statements do not ring true.

    4. I use Ubuntu at home and Windows at work and I have to say that it’s all about what you’re trying to do (note – I prefer Linux, I’ve gone through multiple distros over multiple years, I enjoy using it and being able to control anything about my system, etc.).  It’s not all necessarily about the OS, it’s about what programs you want to use in that OS.  I mean, if all you do is open up a browser window then you’re probably golden, but if there are specific programs that you need to work you should probably look into those. 

      Also, if you want to try a few out, get a thumbdrive and download Unetbootin –, you can get a wide variety of distros and make bootable thumbdrives directly from there, most will be able to live boot so you can test out and see what you like.

    5.  You have no idea how hard some people think switching to Open Office will be. Changing anything causes a great deal of confusio for a great many people. I once had a customer reject  Apple because, despite the computer being right for him in every other way “button to close a window is on the wrong side!”

  7. All DRM does is hurt end consumers. Pirates are never bothered by it. Because they either get it and use it, or they don’t and they move on to the millions of other free things they get. Why be bothered by not getting something when you were never going to pay for it in the first place?

    Not flip that around for the legal consumer, and suddenly the thing they thought they owned they don’t and now they have to buy things over and over whenever one market place dies, and another one takes over. Netflix goes down? Well tons and tons of movies that you used to be able to “play instantly” are poof gone.Now I will say that it has gotten WAY easier recently to get things that used to be hard or nigh impossible to find–so that is a good start–but they still charge way too much for things. If it costs me $8-10 to go to a movie theater then it should not cost me $40-50 to see a first-run movie in my own home. I would be okay with the same price, or maybe a 10-15% increase (8.80-11.50) but that would be pure profit for the movie houses directly.

  8. Disagree.

    As a consumer, I was resistant to DRM because it limited what I could do with my digital goods. However, when SNK went out of business(well the first time), there were two major reasons. 

    First, in 1999/2000, the hardware was just so damned old and they couldn’t transition off of that. Which is really SNK’s fault.

    Second, bootlegging was a HUGE problem on the NeoGeo platform. Figuring out if your supplier sold you genuine product or not was typically difficult. So much so, has a subforum dedicated to identifying boots. This isn’t SNK’s fault.

    Shinya Morishita of SNK said in 2004,  “Really we are affected on the arcade side, it’s one of the reasons we have kind of given up on arcade developments by ourselves; now we’re continuing to release arcade games, but not for our systems – now we’re making games for the Atomiswave from Sammy. We used to make games using our MVS System, but whenever we released a new game, just one week later, pirate copies would be coming onto the market.”

    So my mind changed, little by little, on it in the intervening years.

    The problem with digital goods is that you can easily copy bits but it’s extremely hard to just conjure up rent or food money. Although as everyone on the freedom side of the equation points out, stopping piracy is like trying to stop the tides. The problem with not trying SOMETHING is that when everyone can get your work for free or cheaper, why bother paying YOU for it?

    So the point of DRM isn’t to restrict freedom. It’s to ensure that producers get paid for their work. I’ve heard a lot of stories about developers who’ve noticed more copies of their software running than paid for it.  When your work is in the hands of millions and beloved all over the world but no one’s throwing money your way to survive, what the hell do you do? Asking nicely to chip in isn’t a business plan.

    I’m willing to bet for every success story about the kindness of strangers, you can find more examples of people just taking what they can and not giving two shits about the people producing. Right now the anime industry is in a LOT of pain because casual piracy has made it easy to consume with out paying for it. The way I view DRM is that it’s a necessary side effect of living in a culture that values money in such the way that it does. The consumer freedom eroding part of DRM isn’t by design, and that’s the most insidious thing here. As long as producing bits is someone’s work, then someone will try to protect that work.

    Further more, for DRM to work it has to be extremely inconvenient to break, not be unbreakable. Look at the Wii U, 3DS, the PlayStation Vita and the PlayStation 3. None of these systems can play non-DRMed games easily(Despite Sony’s massive cryptofail, loading games onto a PS3 with newer firmware is a non-trivial task that hasn’t been solved yet, if ever). The DRM schemes are certainly breakable, but at what cost to break it?

    1. It’s a nice argument, except it ignores the reality that Cory makes money from books that he gives away for free. People who want a free copy, download a free copy. People who want to buy, and can afford it, do so.

      I am a games programmer. I, too, make my living from working on a game that is given away entirely for free.

      I play a lot of other computer games. As a student with no money, many years ago, I pirated them. As someone with a job, I now buy them – I’ve even bought multiple copies of several, even single-player ones, because my wife wants to play at the same time.

      The argument about consoles needing to be piracy-resistant falls flat in the face of the PC gaming industry: PCs can play pirated games *very* easily.

      And yet the “PC games” segment is the largest and fastest-growing of the lot, at $20bn of the $67 bn projected gaming industry turnover for 2012. (The remaining $47Bn is spread between the categories “portable”, “online mobile”, “online PC”, “online console”, “Xbox 360”, “PlayStation 3”, “Nintendo Wii”, etc).

      1. I wasn’t saying that console games need to be piracy resistant, I was just showing that the notion that DRM is “impossible” because the notion that DRM systems are inevitably going to be cracked is simply not true. Saying that they’re crackable thus it is impossible for them to work is ridiculous. It’s possible to pick the lock on my apartment door. I’m still going to lock it every day when I go to work.

        Nor was I ignoring the reality that Cory or yourself and many other fine people make money giving away content. I was relegating that to the edge case. F2P/Freemium games, giving away books hoping the paper ones sell, etc. might work for some people, and it’s exciting that these new business models exist, but it doesn’t supplant or make completely obsolete the old business model. 

Comments are closed.