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