DRM and the Future of Digital Media Distribution

January 10, 2009

I have to start off by giving credit for this entry to my co-worker Red (http://www.lifeofred.com). It started off as a discussion of what exactly DRM is, but got me to thinking about a few other things as well – particularly the future of how media will be distributed.

Before I get into this whole thing, I do want to note that my opinions are strongly influenced by being a CS major and the whole Open Source concept. I believe that copyright laws in the US need to be reformed drastically, and that the major media industries need to hop on board and prepare for the huge change that seems somewhat inevitable. What I suggest here may not be the exact way that things need to happen, but I feel I can safely say I provide a proposal that would be a step in the right direction.

The distribution of media has certainly changed over the years.  There was a time when the only way people could hear music was if they were in the presence of the source.  From the radio to records to cassette tapes to CDs and MP3 players, we have seen a drastic change over time in how people listen to their music. We have also seen changes in how movies, and television shows are watched. From antenna, to cable, to Direct TV, VHS, DVRs, TiVo, DVDs and Blu-Ray.

Advancements in technology have made all forms of media readily available to anyone with an Internet connection. Peer 2 Peer file sharing programs like Limewire and BitTorrent have made this access even more widespread. Within minutes, a use can have access to a high definition DVD or Blu-Ray rip of a movie that hasn’t even hit the shelves yet (for free).

Years ago, in order to prevent this “unauthorized” copying and distribution, many publishers, hardware manufactures, and copyright holders began implementing various forms of DRM. DRM stands for Digital Rights Management but is essentially a generic term that refers to access control. It is implemented at various levels to prevent people from being able to copy, modify, or redistribute media.

Now, basically the way this works is by using an encryption scheme to access content. In ’96 the Content Scrambling System (CSS) scheme was introduced for DVDs and required hardware manufactures such as Sony, Samsung etc… to sign an agreement saying they will restrict access to output devices on there hardware while the media is playing and then they get the key to decrypt the discs. There’s an unwritten rule when it comes to computers…. No system is safe. Anything can and will be cracked, its just a matter of time. This was and so was every other scheme that came out including the new Blu-Ray schemes.

Technical Note (You can skip this if you want, just additional info for those curious.): The way these schemes are gotten around is a little thing called an analog hole. The idea is, at some point the digital media has to be decrypted and is eventually played in analog form. No DRM to control analog signals, so it is thus susceptible to being copied by some other program or hardware device at this point.

We clearly stated earlier that everything can and will be cracked, so how do you stop this duplication and distribution… You make it expressly illegal. In 1998, the US passed an Act called the Digital Millennium Copyrights Act which makes it illegal to produce or provide any technology that circumvents DRM. Now would be a good time to note that the government aims to protect the copyright holder (the creator of the work). What also happens, however, is the complete disregard for those who purchase the media.

It was once believed that when you purchase a CD or movie that you own it. Meaning you have the right to do as you please with it, including making digital copies because as we all know, hard copies degrade over time. With DRM, this is impossible… In fact, it is illegal, because in order for me to make digital copies I would need to strip the DRM from my legally purchased media. The way the industry tries to defend this is by saying once you purchase the media, you don’t own the media, you only own a license to use the media.

Does anyone else see a problem with this? Lets take a moment and talk copyrights. The copyright system in this country is tremendously flawed. It is impossible for someone to create derivative works (regardless of their improvements) without violating a copyright unless permission was previously obtained. Remixing music together for some very nice composition, or using scenes from various movies to create a new one, is essentially illegal.

The copyright system is designed to give the originator of the work “God-rights” to it. They can in effect stop progression because no one else can even attempt to make improvements. The Harry Potter novels are a perfect example of this. The stories Potter and his crew cannot legally be continued by another author without permission from the originator.

The same is done in software applications. It is illegal to reverse-engineer applications and expand or modify them even if it is for the better. Your everyday software imposes these restrictions. MS Office, Internet Explorer, AIM, etc… The Open Source community thinks a little differently and provides a bit of a model that should be followed in everyday US copyrights. When you obtain Open Source Software (freely available*) you get access to the code so you can modify and change it, and even provide to the rest of the world your changes. Most Open Source licenses merely say, give credit where credit is due.

That model of course could not work for the music and movie industries… Hell it barely works for the software industry as there is still a battle against open source… Open Source is winning. The problem with this model is too many in between people lose out on money. So the producers and advertisers, and all the unnecessary minions, lose out on the big bucks that they don’t deserve in the first place. A CD sells for about $16.00. Artists will see a very small percentage of that money. Maybe about $2.00 actually makes it to the artist.

Lets move just a little bit to movies. This is something that really bothers me. Well maybe not as much as TV shows, but we’ll get there… If I purchase a movie, I want a digital copy. Discs are annoying, and with devices like the WD TV HD Media Player coming out, unnecessary. But its illegal for me to rip these things to a hard drive, even though I bought them. I want to watch my movies anywhere. Just like I want to play my music anywhere. Why should copyright holders be able to dictate what I do with my media?

TV shows… Now this is a bit ridiculous that I’m even writing about it at all. When I watch cable television, I get to watch shows for free… I can store them on my DVR, and watch them over and over, and whatever.  For some reason though, people are sued over downloading television shows in digital format… Television shows that are also freely available on the Internet from the producer’s websites. What is the harm in letting someone watch something that is otherwise free, at there convenience (like when they don’t have an Internet connection)? Why are content providers fighting so hard to make sure that I can’t copy things from my DVR to a hard drive to clear up space and save things I want to watch later?

The war on “digital piracy” is excessive to say the least. It is also one that the media industries and the government are losing and will continue to lose. Within the next decade, it will be very uncommon to find anyone that actually purchases CDs (especially when they can download single tracks DRM-free now for so little). No one will go out and buy a $30 blu-ray disc when they can have the digital content fast and unrestricted. The media industry needs to pay attention to trends and jump on board fast.

Here’s my proposal for the future of digital media distribution. Audio tracks should be available to download, DRM-free for a much lower cost. At $1.29/track a person has almost no benefit in downloading music. DRM-free music is a necessity as people have a large variety of mediums they use to play there music and they like to share it among each of those mediums without having to pay for it twice.  You can’t give people a million devices and tell them to buy them all and then buy the same data for each individual device. More people would legally obtain their music were it not for DRM restrictions and excessive costs. This by the way also takes out all the middlemen. The artists will be the sole person to benefit from the sale of these tracks and that’s all that matters.

And so what if people do still share music on P2P programs. The music industry should work like the software industry. Software companies don’t make their money from selling software, they make it in consulting fees, and configuration with big businesses. Artists will make their money through endorsements by companies, concerts, and tours.

Movies – I envision a future where all movies are distributed in HD digital formats via the Internet. No need to waste money producing the disc, people want to store the media on hard drives. When you can buy a Tera-byte drive for under $200, there is no reason to not store your media. Sell the DRM-free digital formats for prices well below that of a disc. Most of the money made in movies comes from the time it was in theaters and endorsements from companies looking for advertisements in the movies.

If the media industries would stop being greedy, they would see that you don’t lose as much as they think they will by providing a fair and acceptable means for obtaining media. The government also needs to take a step back from this battle and revamp the way we do copyrights. Its old and outdated… We’re moving into a new age very quickly, and certain laws should be adjusted to align with that.

That’s my rant. Maybe someone will actually pay attention to how we do these things and fix it for the better… Or sooner or later, the media industries won’t be making any money at all.