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Digital rights management
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Digital rights management

Digital Rights Management or Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) is an umbrella term for any of several arrangements by which the usage of a copyrighted digital work can be restricted by the owner of the rights to the work. The actual arrangements are called technical protection measures (although the distinction between the two terms is not particularly clear).

Table of contents
1 Introduction
2 Digital Millennium Copyright Act
3 DRM advocates
4 DRM Opponents
5 DRM and document restriction technology
6 Controversies about and consequences of deployed DRM
7 External links


Although technical protection measures for software have been common since the 1980s, DRM is increasingly being used for creative works too. Some would like to use DRM mechanisms to protect other "proprietary information", particularly trade secrets and uncopyrightable facts in databases (see also database protection laws).

In contrast to existing legal restrictions which copyrighted status imposes on the owner of a copy of any such data, most DRM schemes would enforce additional restrictions to be imposed solely at the discretion of the copyright holder. DRM vendors and users uniformly hold that the initials stand for "digital rights management". Because the "rights" that the content owner chooses to grant are not necessarily the same as the actual legal rights of the content consumer, DRM opponents maintain that the phrase "digital rights management" is a misnomer, and that "digital restrictions management" is an accurate characterization of the functionality of DRM systems. A famous example of DRM overreach was Adobe Systems' release in 2000 of a public domain work, Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, with DRM protection that asserted that "this book cannot be read aloud" and prevented use of the text-to-speech feature normally available in Adobe eBook Reader.

In the extreme, such control is proposed to be enforced through so-called trusted computing. Opponents maintain that this creates the prospect of a computer system which cannot be trusted to protect the rights of its owner, because they can be remotely manipulated at any time, regardless of the legal merits of the change.

Several laws relating to DRM have been proposed or already enacted in various jurisidictions (State, Federal, non-US). Some of them will require all computer systems to have mechanisms controlling the use of digital media. (See Professor Edward Felten's freedom-to-tinker Web site for information and pointers to the current debate on these matters).

An early example of a DRM system is the Content Scrambling System (CSS) employed by the DVD Forum on movie DVD disks. It was originally developed by Matsushita in Japan. The data on the DVD is encrypted so that it can only be decoded and viewed using an encryption key, which the DVD Consortium kept secret. In order to gain access to the key, a DVD player manufacturer had to sign a license agreement with the DVD Consortium which restricted them from including certain features in their players such as a digital output which could be used to extract a high-quality digital copy of the movie. Since the only hardware capable of decoding the movie was controlled by the DVD Consortium in this way, they were able to impose whatever restrictions they chose on the playback of such movies. See also DIVX for a more restrictive and less commercially successful variation which is no longer marketed. The name is also used (DivX), in ironic tribute to the defunct disk "protection" scheme, for a video compression protocol, akin to MPEG-4.

To date, all DRM systems have failed to meet the challenge of protecting the rights of the rights holder while also allowing the use of the rights of the purchaser. None have succeeded in preventing criminal copyright infringement by organized, unlicensed commercial sellers. Flaws of some well known systems include:

Digital Millennium Copyright Act

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act was passed in the United States in an effort to make the circumvention of such systems illegal. It was passed without debate, and without even token opposition, Congress being apparently under the impression that it was a "technical" enactment, without significant public policy implication. It has been widely imitated elsewhere by other governments.

Despite this law, which has since received substantial opposition on Constitutional grounds, it is still relatively easy to find DVD players which bypass the limitations the DVD Consortium sought to impose. John Hoy, president of the DVD Copy Control Association, in testimony to the Library of Congress in 2003 stated "furthermore, if a consumer in the United States desires to view a DVD disc that has been region coded only for Europe, then that consumer is free to purchase a DVD player (either hardware or software) that is coded to play European DVDs. No legal restrictions apply – either through the CSS license or otherwise – to the importation and use of non-U.S. region players in the United States". (reply comments, comment 28, page 4, PDF document).

There has been a widely publicized arrest and arraignment of a Russian programmer, Dmitry Sklyarov, for violation of the DMCA. He did the work cited for his employer, Elcomsoft, while in Russia, where it was and remains entirely legal. The product allowed those who were in possession of a password, presumably lawfully obtained along with the encrypted copy of the work, to make copies without encryption locking them to use on a single computer. Sklyarov was arrested on a criminal warrant during a lecture visit to the US, and spent several months in jail until a compromise was reached. The criminal case against Elcomsoft resulted in acquittal. See Professor Edward Felton's freedom-to-tinker Web site [1] for some observations on the DCMA, its proposed successors, and their consequences, intended and unintended.

The DMCA is also causing a chill in the activities of fully legitimate computer scientists. Professor Felten, at Princeton, has had difficulty publishing papers he and his students have written; they were related to a contest sponsored by a security software company inviting investigation into a product design. (See Internet postings in Felten v. RIAA). Alan Cox, the Englishman who was Linus Torvalds' chief deputy thoughout almost the entire first decade of the development of Linux, has resigned his position due to his concern that a criminal charge might be laid against him as a result of some code in the Linux kernel. He has even declined to post explanations of some changes made in the kernel (the changelog is fundamental to the project) because of his concern about his exposure to prosecution and penalty under the DMCA; such explanations might be seen as a DMCA "disclosure". And he has declined to attend US software conferences for the same reason. Niels Ferguson, a Dutch cryptography expert and security consultant, discovered a flaw in an Intel security protocol, told Intel about it and was told that Intel had no objection to his publishing a paper about the problem. He has nevertheless decided not to publish. He also is concerned about being arrested under the DMCA.

New DRM initiatives have been proposed in recent years which could prove more difficult to circumvent, including copy-prevention codes embedded in broadcast HDTV signals and the Palladium operating system. A wide variety of DRM systems have also been employed to restrict access to eBooks. See the TCPA/Palladium FAQ [1] maintained by Professor Ross J. Anderson for a clear discussion of two prominent proposals.

Opponents of DRM, as envisioned and as currently implemented, note that by delegating control of computer access (or control of the ability to execute some programs, or to execute programs only with certain data) to anyone except the user and the machine's administrator(s), there is a very considerable risk of problems caused by such third party interference which go well beyond any control of intellectual property rights issues.

For instance, due to a bug (or misdesign, or misadministration of an otherwise "reasonable" design) the protecting software (eg, in a trusted computing system) implementing the local part of a DRM scheme may prevent a computer user from using his computer at all, or from using programs (or using data as an input to a program) when such use is actually completely legitimate and not a violation of any copyright holders' rights. Or, for another instance, a legitimately purchased copy of a DVD might be blocked because it is being used on equipment which doesn't include the DRM function permitting access to it, or which if included, doesn't interoperate correctly. Currently, DVDs legally purchased in some places are not playable in other places for exactly these reasons, although in this case it is marketing considerations and not "security" which is the reason for the restriction. DRM provisions have already appeared in released versions of some Microsoft Windows operating system subsystems (e.g., Windows Media Player) and are scheduled in more as Palladium is implemented in currently planned, not yet released, versions of Windows.

Security protocols, software implementing security protocols, and cryptography have historically proven extremely difficult to design without vulnerabilities due to bugs or design mistakes. This has been true of designs from experienced and well respected professionals; the record is abysmally poor for those inexperienced in cryptography and security protocols.

DRM advocates

Some DRM advocates have suggested (and some legislation has actually been introduced to authorize) that copyright owners be given the ability to remotely delete information from others' computers when, in the view of the copyright holder (or more accurately the copyright holder's software), it is not being legitimately held. One such suggestor is from a senior US Senator, chairman of a committee with jurisdiction in this field.

The prospect of a bug or maldesign in the software implementing any such scheme is more than a little disturbing to many. They point out that we have demonstrated (by frequent and long extant virus infestations, by system software security errors, by misconfiguration of software of all kinds, and by software failure – both system and application) that we don't currently know how to design software that does something just as intended and nothing else. How much less likely are we likely to get right software which must do something quite dangerous (i.e., file or program deletion, interfering with system operation to prevent copyright infringement) in only somewhat foreseeable circumstances? Pattern recognition software is not yet fully capable of even distinguishing the predictable (e.g., has this fingerprint, iris pattern, retinal pattern, or face been seen before?). It does not seem likely that any system we can currently design and implement will be able to reliably distinguish between one class of data or another, perhaps including not yet existing documents, parodies, samplings, and so on, especially when the legitimacy of possession or use depends entirely on outside the computer facts such as purchaser identity, terms of purchase, details of license contracts applicable to particular data and to this particular situation, and so on.

DRM advocates have taken the position, in essence, that DRM / security / cryptography design goals and operational contexts are sufficiently well understood, and software engineering is also sufficiently well understood and will be so practised, that it is already possible to achieve the desired ends without causing unrelated problems for users, their computers, or those who depend on either. In essence, they claim that there is no technical, nor engineering competence problem foreseeable with such software.

Thus far, neither side has compelled the other to agree, though there has been much heat and little enlightenment. Legislation to impose, by force majeure, a DRM "solution" on all is under consideration in many jurisdictions, including the US Congress. Some has already been enacted. DRM advocates are still having no little difficulty explaining why DRM software is more likely to be done right than software for

All of these examples are of systems whose designers and implementors were highly motivated to get right, and had very substantial resources available to do so. Less intensively engineered software is more, rather than less, likely to have problems.

An early example of a DRM scheme is that currently protecting some textbooks required in some American Dental Schools. The textbooks are available only on CD, and are readable in a computer only for a limited time, after which the CD "expires" and the information in the "CD book" becomes unavailable. Some of these books are not available on paper at all. Those who still have their college or graduate school texts might find this quite surprising. Dental students whose textbooks have evaporated may be expected to be somewhat different as dentists than their predecessors whose instructional materials were less evanescent.

Examples of existing "digital rights management" and "copy protection" systems:

DRM Opponents

Several organizations and prominent individuals are opposed to DRM in its various currently proposed forms. Two notable opponents are John Walker in his article, The Digital Imprimatur: How big brother and big media can put the Internet genie back in the bottle, and Richard Stallman in his article/story The Right to Read. Professor Ross Anderson of Cambridge University heads a British organization which has been quite active in opposing DRM and similar efforts in the UK. Another is Cory Doctorow: he made a speech to Microsoft on the issue that criticizes the technology, the morality, and the marketing of DRM at http://www.craphound.com/msftdrm.txt.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation and similar cyber civil rights organizations also hold positions which may be broadly characterized as opposed to DRM.

Techno-liberals such as FFII criticize DRM's impact as a trade barrier from a free market perspective.

The use of DRM is also likely to be a barrier to future historians, since technologies designed to only allow the data to be read on specific machines may well make future data recovery impossible - seeDigital Revolution.

DRM and document restriction technology

Opponents of DRM have noted that the proposed use of some DRM schemes to restrict the ability to copy and distribute documents can be used by criminals as a means of preventing enforcement of laws against fraud and other wrongdoing. Since DRM is unlikely to be so used by individual criminals, only organized (ie, corporate) skullduggery is likely to be concealed this way.

See also: copy protection XrML eSlavery

Controversies about and consequences of deployed DRM

Several DRM schemes have now been enacted. DRM opponents have seen many of them as "abuse" of copyright; DRM proponents have been less concerned. Examples include:

External links

Lobbying Organizations: