If you’re concerned about the proliferation of DRM, fear not: it’s inevitably “headed for the historical dustbin.” Cory Doctorow says so, in The Register. Well, that’s a relief; I was worried for a while there.
All right, seriously, for all that I tend to agree with Doctorow on the undesirability of DRM, and hope just as fervently as he does that it will go away, I do have to take his grandiose pronunciations on its future with a few grains of salt. He wears the habitual rose-colored glasses of the impassioned activist, and sometimes they lead him to what I feel are unrealistic conclusions. But at least this Register interview has a few interesting bits to ponder on.
The most noteworthy bit is Doctorow’s contention that the entertainment industry is really starting to get annoyed with all these other industries attempting to take advantage of the DMCA’s anti-circumvention provisions to protect their own business models. Hollywood didn’t fight for the right to protect ebooks, music, DVDs, and Blu-rays so garage door manufacturers could block universal remotes or auto manufacturers could cut out third-party mechanics, after all.
I had a remarkable thing happen when I was arguing about this with a whole group of people. It became very apparent that the automotive thing in particular was really divisive. Someone in the entertainment industry suggested that rather than reform the Digital Millennium Copyright Act [DMCA], we just have the Department of Transport make it a crime to put DRM on cars, and the embedded systems people were like “WAIT, WHAT?”
Doctorow also has a few things to say about a vote by the W3C on whether to permit DRM to be codified into the new World Wide Web standard. Tim Berners-Lee effectively threw up his hands and said that DRM was coming anyway and the W3C doesn’t have any power to forbid it even though it could potentially lead back to “best viewed in this browser” web fragmentation if different browsers choose to implement it in different ways.
Apparently the W3C couldn’t come to a consensus on whether to codify protections for accessibility and security research into the standard, and ended up holding a vote on the matter—whose results Doctorow can’t directly speak on, since they’re confidential to the W3C’s members, but nonetheless found “very interesting.”
Doctorow also hopes that the impending exit of Britain from the EU will lead to the country reconsidering whether it will continue to be a party to the EU Copyright Directive, or might possibly become an exporter of DRM-breaking tools. He adds, “We are talking to people in different countries where there is no law for DRM because they can become exporters of DRM breaking tools. There are DRM dimes to be made breaking DRM dollars.”
I think that’s another one of those unrealistic conclusions—I have a hard time imagining that staid, tradition-bound Britain could suddenly “go wild” and start tossing out DRM-breaking tools like strings of Mardi Gras beads. They have nearly as powerful an entertainment lobby as the US, after all. That sort of thing seems almost as unlikely as the DMCA getting tossed out on its ear. But then, Britain suddenly deciding to exit the EU was also seen as unlikely just a couple of years ago, so who am I to say?
But whatever the future of DRM holds, I continue to shake my head in bemusement at its present. By any reasonable measure, DRM on both ebooks and movies is ridiculously ineffective. Even Blu-ray DRM, wherein every few months Hollywood intentionally breaks every Blu-ray player that’s ever been sold until and unless it can get a new firmware patch, can be easily cracked by a $100-for-lifetime-subscription software package. (Hollywood was able to get its developer shut down in February, 2016, but its programmers moved to another country and brought it back again just a week later.) Then other software like Handbrake can rip the movies to digital formats.
And ebook DRM has been ineffective for years to anyone tech-savvy enough to install the proper Calibre plug-in. Even library ebooks can be cracked and kept the same way purchased Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Kobo titles can be unshackled and backed up.
At this point, it seems like the DMCA is little more than a fig leaf to permit equipment manufacturers to stifle competition, rather than a serious attempt to protect the sanctity of entertainment content. Small wonder that the entertainment industry is starting to get annoyed at those equipment manufacturers. But will any serious attempts at an alternative method of protection, such as Custos’s watermarking bounty hunting scheme, ever get off the ground?
Whatever Cory Doctorow thinks, DRM is becoming a more contentious issue the more time goes on, and the more equipment manufacturers try to twist the DMCA to their own purposes. Will we ever see true reform happen? Will Congress do anything in regard to reforming the DMCA exemption request and fair use takedown provisions? Will the EFF’s recent suit to attempt to overturn the anti-circumvention provision bear any fruit? I’m not as optimistic as Doctorow, but perhaps there still are reasons to hope.
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