1. DRM is a pernicious pain in the posterior

‘Digital rights management’ is a phrase designed to mislead. Almost everything is digital these days, so the word provides no information. ‘Management’ sounds like a useful tool or service, but DRM is neither. And its purpose is to give the manufacturer, not us, control over the ‘rights’–whose nature is controversial. DRM is a mechanism used by ‘owners’ of ‘intellectual property’ to prevent ‘unauthorized’ copying.

Say you’ve discovered a great new album at the iTunes Store. You want to play it for a friend, because he might want to buy it too. You email him one of the songs. But he can’t play it on his computer. This is DRM.

You’re watching a movie on a DVD in your computer. You want to blog about this great movie. And it would be pleasant for the reader if the post is illustrated with a still from the movie, so you do a screen-grab while it’s playing. The resulting image is completely black. This is DRM.

I tried to watch a DVD of 2001: a Space Odyssey the other day, but it was poorly digitized; the picture quality sucks. My stepson has a PS3, which can play Blu-ray discs, so as an experiment I bought a Blu-ray edition of 2001. This was my first purchase of anything Blu-ray. There was a warning slip in the package:

This Blu-ray disc is manufactured to the highest quality available. It is possible this Blu-ray disc was manufactured after your Blu-ray player. To ensure the best possible viewing experience, your Blu-ray disc player may need a firmware or software update. Please consult your hardware manufacturer’s website for the latest firmware or software version and, if an upgrade is available, we suggest that you follow its installation instructions. (c) 2007 Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. All rights reserved.

This is the kind of expensive hilarity inherent in DRM. “You might not be able to play the expensive disc you just bought, on the expensive player you just bought, because we’re still trying to fix the crippleware.” What benefits does this development effort have for me? None, it has only costs. It cannot improve the picture, only degrade it. It cannot improve the player, only cripple it. I do not want it. It has been forced on me by a band of jackals and dingbats.

To say that this disc is of “the highest quality available” is misleading. Everything about this disc would likely have been of higher quality, absent the DRM. Warner Brothers can claim to have the highest-quality product available in a crippleware wrapper – but not the highest quality there is.

2. To publish is to make available

DRM is not only irritating, costly, and bug-ridden today; it will so always. DRM cannot work properly, ever, because the very idea is logically incoherent. This is not a technological problem, it is a conceptual problem; it cannot be fixed or sidestepped, because it was baked into the proposal at the very beginning.

Let’s step outside the digital world for a moment. A painting is unique and cannot be copied–I mean not exactly, the way a jpeg can. A painting can be imitated, not copied. A photograph of the painting can be published, but the painting itself, that thing hanging on your wall, cannot. A performance, too, is unique, and cannot be copied. If you sing a song, I can record the sound, but not the intimate, evanescent experience that took place while you were singing.

On the other hand, a recording of a performance can be put into digital form. And anything digital can be copied perfectly, bit-for-bit, through any number of generations.

Therefore: if you don’t like the idea of people making perfect bit-by-bit copies of your performances, all you have to do is to avoid putting them into digital form.

Again: not everything is digital. Physical objects cannot be copied (not yet!), nor can physical events be repeated. No performance can be copied and distributed, but recordings of the performance certainly can; and if you make such a recording, you are deliberately capturing some of the information about that never-to-be-repeated concert and storing it in a form that can be copied and distributed, all over the world, in less time than it takes to play it back.

The Recording Industry Association of America maintains that people should be prosecuted, not only for copying bits, but for just “making them available” for copying. But “making available” is exactly what the recording industry does. That’s its job. That’s what it’s for. Its defining characteristic is that it records things and makes the recordings available. When a CD or an MP3 file is published, it’s available. That’s what the word ‘publishing’ means. What’s more, publishers know perfectly well that this is a digital world and that the tools for copying anything digital are simple, free, and ubiquitous. So if they don’t want their products copied, why on Earth do they publish them in digital formats?

Imagine that there is a trouble-maker who likes to leave his wallet on a park bench, and hide behind a bush, and then call the cops when someone picks it up. Publishing a song, and then arresting everyone who copies it, is the same kind of mind-fuck. You released your precious bits into the global infosphere, knowing perfectly well that they can and will be copied–and then you insist that copying is a crime and anyone who does it is a criminal!

Bits are for copying. You can’t use them otherwise. If you don’t want people copying your “property,” don’t publish it as bits.

For publishers, the fundamental problem with using DRM is not that current methods are lossy, brittle, bug-infested, or expensive (though they are all these things). It is not that their implementation and enforcement raise serious privacy and civil-liberties issues (though they do). It is not even that all these things add up to DRM being experienced, by your paying customers, as an expression of contempt. (Not so good for customer retention.) No, the root problem with DRM is that the concept just totally makes no sense. You cannot publish your bits and prevent their being copied, any more than you can eat a brownie and save it for later. It cannot be done, not by anyone. Not in this universe. All the warts and lesions and poisonous barbs of all DRM technologies follow from this inescapable fact. DRM was a failure before it was even built.

Certainly the software developers should have known this, and probably did. I can picture them telling the publishers, “Sure, we can build this for you. It will be expensive, but we can do it.” Had they had any scruples, they would have said, “We’re sorry, but this thing you want cannot be made. And if we try to make it anyway–or an ersatz version, because the real thing cannot be done–it will just make everyone miserable. Except, of course, the folks who are already accustomed to downloading music for free. DRM will not inconvenience them, only your legitimate customers.”

Look. If you scramble the bits before you publish them, then no one can use them, and no one will pay you for them. So you have to hand out the unscrambling recipe. But as soon as one person has it, everyone can have it, because the recipe itself, like any other string of bits, can be copied across multiple media at the speed of light. Give me ten minutes, and I will print your secret formula on my T-shirt before my next lecture.

To sum up: 1. ‘digital rights management’ would be a poor idea even if it did work, and 2. it cannot work. Any questions?