DRM Is A Folding Chair

(During my afternoon run (thanks for asking, it was awful <G>), I found myself going over Ernest’s "what is DRM for?" question, and I came up with a working metaphor that helps to explain further what I meant in my last posting on the subject.)

DRM is a folding chair — specifically, it’s one of those folding chairs that people use after shoveling out the snow from a parking space that they use to claim it after they drive away.

For those of you who don’t have to cope with snow, I know that sounds incredible (it was to me when I moved here from South Carolina), but this is a real problem in cities with limited parking and poor snow removal. People who shovel out their cars will have a ratty old folding chair or an old street cone or, if they’re feeling really aggressive, an old kid’s toy that they will plant squarely in the middle of the shoveled-out parking space. This object "marks" the spot, and everyone knows what it means — this is my spot: park here and you will suffer the consequences.

So, you keep driving around until you find a place that hasn’t been claimed or, in the worst case, you get out of your car, move the object, and hope that you won’t come back to find that your car has been keyed — or worse. After years and years of accepting this as a part of city living, Boston’s mayor got fed up with this whole thing [pdf] this past winter and ordered city garbage collectors to collect and dispose of all such parking space markers as a part of the regular garbage collection. (They gave people who used kid’s toys a 24 hour notice, but they tossed everything else in the trash) [an online gallery; updated URL]

Now, I see that this feature of city living is interestingly parallel to the issues of DRM, particularly as it relates to Ernest’s question:

  • First, consider the parking spot itself. It is a common good, created, maintained and regulated by the municipality and paid for with the tax dollars of the citizenry. A resident who puts a certain amount of work into this common good (i.e., shoveling out the snow) believes that it now "belongs" to her/him.

    The parallels to IP should be clear here. The artist, building upon the cultural heritage of the past, puts work into something that she/he then asserts ownership over. And, in both cases, I think that we all agree that there’s something to the argument, although we might disagree with how much.

  • Next, consider the instrument of that claim. The parking spot is claimed/marked with a marginally valuable/useful object. Some of these chairs are real jokes. Moreover, if we consider the purpose to which it is being set, it is tragically inadequate to the task. A 100 pound boulder might actually be a deterrent, but a chair is no real impediment to the use of the space. It does, however, introduce something of a burden to the driver. She/he has to get out of the car to move the chair — irritating, but no real limit to someone who’s even slightly determined.

    Again, the parallels to DRM are clear. Everthing that we know about DRM schemes today says that they cannot be a real impediment to copying. They’ll slow most people down, but they cannot stand for any real time. Moreover, like the crummy chair, DRM techniques are not worth investing major amounts of time and money in developing, since they really don’t work anyway.

  • When we get to primary enforcement, we see the key difference between the folding chair and DRM. The folding chair is formally backed up solely by vigilante justice that is purely illegal. The violator of the folding chair leaves a valuable asset in a vulnerable state, and the threat of damage to that asset is a powerful deterrent. Yes, you might be able to file a complaint, but you really aren’t going to get much out of it — particularly if you live in the neighborhood!

    DRM is backed by the state (via the DMCA), and grounded in another underlying legal construct, copyright. The state supports the notion that there are rights to be defended, even though achieving that defense is sometimes difficult and, so far, anyway, is largely left in the hands of the copyright owner. On the other hand, that does offer up the interesting notion that filesharing lawsuits are the equivalent of keying a parked car <G>

Here’s the real point — the folding chair really draws its effectiveness from the cultural norms that have built up around it. An experienced Cambridge driver knows not to mess with a parking space that has a folding chair in it, even though she/he has never experienced the consequences that I describe above. Speaking personally, I can’t name a single person who has actually had this problem, but every Cambridge resident collectively knows that it would happen — even though a folding chair is, practically speaking, a completely ineffective limit on the use of a parking space.

But the folding chair works: not because of what it does, but because of what its presence means.

To me, the same is true for DRM. It’s not necessarily supposed to work. But it is supposed to tell us that, if we mess with it, we’re doing something wrong, and something bad might happen. The more that DRM gets used, and accepted, as an appropriate thing to include in products, the more inured we become to the notion that the thing it protects is property to be owned. And, by accepting it, we’ll become less able to frame, much less pose, the question of whether the thing it’s defending even should be owned — and if so, by whom?

I like this metaphor — it probably has a lot of other uses that I haven’t thought through yet. For example, we can expand it to think about copyright terms. We all agree that you probably should be able to keep your parking space for a little while — after all, you did supply a public good by shoveling out a parking space (even though you did so to be able to drive your car). On the other hand, we probably also agree that there should be a time limit on that ownership. It’s unlikely that there is a consensus about exactly how long that time limit should be but, for example, I’m sure we all would agree that it should end when the snow has melted, and probably a lot sooner than that.

That’s all I’ve got for now, but I’m sticking with this metaphor for the moment, if only because it appeals to the latent Dadaist in me — DRM is a folding chair.

More on Sky Captain

Wired 12.05: Kid Robot and the World of Tomorrow (See the earlier posting, Sky Captain)

Due out June 25, Sky Captain is Conran’s first picture; it’s also the first live-action studio release in which every scene is at least partly computer-generated. The actors are real, but just about everything else, from city sidewalks to exploding zeppelins, is digital. “A lot of filmmakers would find it limiting, but I find it strangely liberating,” Conran declares. “You wish you could just move that actor over an inch? Well, we can.”

[…] Not every filmmaker wants to disappear inside a computer, and not every actor wants to work in a void. “You get a little nuts in that blue,” says Paltrow. “I started to feel like, if I ever see this color again, I’m going to kill myself.” Yet there may be benefits to Conran’s technique that can’t be ignored. “The breakthrough,” Avnet says, “is that we didn’t go all over the world, so the cost was staggeringly less” – about $40 million, compared with $80 million for Law’s Cold Mountain, which required an extended location shoot in Romania. “That’s something the film world is going to have to pay attention to.”

Planet Spreadsheet Strikes [?]

Major labels ‘force 70% price hike’ on Apple (why "Planet Spreadsheet?" See this earlier post)

The world’s five biggest music labels have successfully forced Apple to increase the prices it charges for songs on the online iTunes Music Store.

As we reported back in April, the major labels have been engaged in negotiations with the Mac maker in a bid to persuade it to put up prices.

According to a New York Post report [pdf] today, citing sources close to the talks, all five have succeeded.

The sources claim Apple has now signed agreements with EMI, Bertelsmann Music Group (BMG), Sony, Universal and Warner that will see prices on some songs rise from 99c to $1.25, an increase of over 26 per cent.

Still, that’s better than the $2.99 price point some labels had been pushing Apple to introduce.

Slashdot: Record Labels Push for iTunes Price Hike

Update: Derek points to a Reuters UK article that says Apple denies this story: Apple denies report of online music price boost, reiterated at CNet – Apple: 99 cent music price tag staying

Microsoft, Post-PC

Microsoft Plugs PC as Media Hub

fter a lifetime of telling people how they will use computers, it was as if Microsoft had suddenly discovered the consumer.

Sure, the company has pitched lots of products and services to consumers in the past — MSN, the ill-fated UltimateTV, tablets, wireless monitors and a Windows “media center” that operates by remote control.

But, as an industry event, this year’s WinHEC was a turning point. On the trade show floor, in place of the once-huge booth occupied by chipmaker Intel — Microsoft’s biggest partner — digital recorders, designer flash drives and 3-D games dominated Intel’s former space. In their keynote talks, Allchin and Microsoft chairman Bill Gates stretched harder than ever to show the PC as the future hub of home entertainment.

It’s a category Microsoft is in a hurry to master because, as one of the company’s partners pointed out Tuesday between Allchin’s and Gates’ talks, the PC is running out of time.

Technologies of Distribution

Stealing Back the Airwaves

Please don’t call Stephen Dunifer a pirate. He’s a microbroadcaster, or, at least, a former one.

As Dunifer tells it, the term “pirate radio,” though once a badge of honor, is misleading. Pirates are criminals, he might tell you, while microbroadcasters are Tom Paine-like patriots.

Dunifer dreams of reclaiming the airwaves, neighborhood by neighborhood, from the corporate powers that be. To that end, he’s spent the past several years training would-be do-it-yourself broadcasters. His four-day Radio Summer Camps, sponsored by Free Radio Berkeley, offer how-tos for building transmitters and antennas, along with advice on handling any FCC agents that might come knocking. The camps begin in June.

[…] “It’s been extremely empowering to follow the DIY ethic,” she said. “What’s even more exciting is that I am continually inspired to learn more about radio technology … and I’ve really started to think about the facets of society that constrict our ability to communicate. When others hear of the crazy projects I do, they get inspired too. It’s infectious.”

[…] “We need an alternative media to bring alternative viewpoints and to give us access to music and art and poetry and other forms of expression,” Dunifer said. “It’s fundamental to the democratic process. If you don’t have an open media that’s freewheeling and chaotic and a wonderful mess, you don’t have democracy.”

Danger, Will Robinson! Filesharing!

FTC testimony highlights file-sharing dangers (Note: I assume that the hearing materials will eventually show up here, but haven’t yet)

Speaking before the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection, Howard Beales III, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said that file-sharing, or peer-to-peer, software can “expose consumers to unwanted pornography, as well as games, videos and music that may be inappropriate for children.”

Cynics (2)

Ernest is on a tear, with another great contribution to this discussion in Why Use DRM If It Doesn’t Work?

The straightforward answer is that DRM provides the content industries benefits that are unrelated to or only loosely related to stopping content from getting onto filesharing networks.

DRM works, just not for piracy protection. However, claiming you need DRM for piracy protection seems plausible on its face. If you haven’t really thought about the issue it makes a good public justification for insisting on government support of DRM (“Gotta have it to stop them no good rotten pirates!”). But what are some of the real reasons one would support DRM even if it doesn’t stop internet piracy or even slow it down significantly?


  • The very fact that DRM doesn’t work is a justification for Hollywood’s legislative agenda. “We need more laws because technology alone won’t solve the problem.”

  • Once you start selling content without DRM it will be hard to go back – how will you justify it? […]
  • Selling content with DRM (even if the DRM is broken) means you aren’t really selling anything at all, you are licensing it. […]
  • In the case of the broadcast flag, you set a precedent for controlling technology that has otherwise been uncontrolled. […]

In combination with the DMCA, DRM becomes a devastating legal weapon, even if it is a pathetic technogical one. Note that copyright infringement is already illegal (with potentially enormous liability attached) but the DMCA allows people to be punished for doing things that are perfectly legal under copyright law. For example, not only is one subject to civil liability for distributing an unauthorized DVD player, one is subject to liability for merely playing a lawfully purchased DVD on an unauthorized DVD player. Nice to have that threat hanging over people’s heads, isn’t it?

Of course, the DMCA threat isn’t aimed so much at consumers (though they are definitely in the crosshairs) as it is aimed at consumer electronics and software companies, which is the final point of this section.

Whew! There isn’t much I can argue with here. But I can add one further, and terribly cynical, perspective of my own.

The drive to promote DRM is to change the way we think about objects of culture — to get rid of the presumption that it’s "our" culture. By injecting DRM into the way that we experience cultural objects, we are being trained to accept that we should be alienated from our culture; and that we should expect to pay rents to access it. Because digitization of content means that we depend upon technological instruments to mediate the way that we experience culture, DRM injects an architectural barrier — a turnstile, if you will — between the objects of culture and our experience of it.

DRM is part of a process to break us of the nasty habit of thinking culture is a common good. Like a speed bump, it’s not about making us stop; it’s about making us recognize that someone thinks what we’re doing is wrong. And then using our own naïvité to get us to stop.

Cynics (1)

After Ernest’s excellent indictment of the motives of the FCC, I approach this exercise with a little trepidation. Nonetheless, there are a couple of points to this discussion that are worth making.

I will start with what I have generally derided as a weak instrument of rhetoric: recourse to a dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary defines cynical as follows:

cynical, a

1. Resembling the Cynic philosophers in contempt of pleasure, churlishness, or disposition to find fault; characteristic of a cynic; surly, currish, misanthropic, captious; now esp. disposed to disbelieve in human sincerity or goodness; sneering.

From The American Heritage Dictionary we get a milder definition:


ADJECTIVE: 1. Believing or showing the belief that people are motivated chiefly by base or selfish concerns; skeptical of the motives of others: a cynical dismissal of the politician’s promise to reform the campaign finance system.

Given the general strength of the AHD when it comes to common US english usage, it’s probably fair for Ernest to point out that he isn’t really ascribing evil motives to the FCC, just self-serving ones. (My British colleagues, OTOH, might be less likely to see it that way <G>)

More importantly, I found the AHD definition indicative of a deeper problem. As the sample usage sentence shows, we have come to assume that, as a matter of course, politicians are purely self-serving — "public service" is a bankrupt concept, useful these days apparently only as a notion to be derided.

Of course, the framers of the US Constitution, recognizing that the baser instincts of humanity were inescapable, worked to design a government that would channel these natural tendencies so that the public good would be served. Similarly, the laws of administrative procedure try to do the same at the regulatory level.

On the other hand, we’ve lost something in the intervening 200+ years. I’m relatively sure that the Framers assumed that, while government officials would always be moved by self-interest and that institutions had to be structured to mitigate that effect, any government official who openly acted in accordance with self-interest would be summarily removed from office. Freedom of the press and an open society would act to ensure that outcome.

Fast-forward to 21st century American politics, and we find that the cultural norms have changed. Now, the body politic (or at least its pundits) are perfectly happy to excuse all sorts of behavior on the grounds that, while an official’s actions were venal, no laws were broken — or worse, as we are getting in the corporate scandals, the officials didn’t know what they were doing was illegal.

Cynicism like that is going to get us all in trouble, I fear. The unfolding of the current Abu Ghraib prison scandal, with excuses like "I haven’t read the report yet" plus (I fear) whatever Secretary Rumsfeld is going to tell Congress today to explain away not speaking to this subject the last time he was before them, will be a test of how we use cynicism.

It’s one thing to use cynicism to help us understand what’s going on; it’s quite something else to use it to excuse that what should be inexcusable. One of George Orwell’s contributions was to give a name to something that he saw as completely corrosive to civilized society, yet dangerously sustainable in certain environments — “doublethink.” We need to be careful not to turn cynicism into an equally destructive weltansschaung.

Am I Gonna Have To Get Cable?

This guy thinks that’s the best way to force the move to digital TV: No more delays on digital TV

Powell and staff suggest changing the way households capable of receiving a digital signal are measured. This is a critical metric, because, according to current law, 85 percent of households in any market must be able to receive digital broadcasts before the extra TV channels broadcasters were given to get them through the transition can be freed up.

Congress established a 2006 target for the end of the digital TV transition and the release of this “analog spectrum.” But the process is stalled because, as calculated, it is not likely that the 85 percent trigger will ever be achieved.

Digital TV offers a number of advantages, including the ability to provide better-quality pictures, a greater array of programming and new services, such as interactive TV. But the transition has foundered on the shoals of a government policy at odds with market reality. That policy is premised on a transition to free over-the-air broadcast TV when, in fact, only 10 percent of viewers receive television this way, and that percentage is declining.

Funny how “market reality” gives different signals to different people. What happened to considering the customer’s value proposition? Expensive service (digital cable here in Cambridge costs $100+), soon-to-be-crippled-by-the-broadcast-flag transmissions and expensive players to see programs that are more expensive to produce because increased resolution is a mixed blessing to television producers? Hmmmm, maybe the market is offering up a different signal……..

(As for myself, I’ll switch from over-the-air TV the day I can get it over a fat Internet pipe — but no way I’m ever giving Comcast another dime of my money,)