Do we really need trusted computing and digital rights management?

I’ve never thought much about the trusted platform module (TPM) inside my PC but recently I’ve heard a lot about the rights and wrongs of digital rights management (DRM) – a technology which looks certain to make ever greater use of the TPM.

I also came across a (well-produced) short video about trusted computing. It makes a very interesting point based on a definition of trust (confidence) being a “personal believe [sic] in the correctness of something… a deep conviction of truth… which cannot be enforced… [and which] always depends on mutuality”.

In the last few weeks, I’ve heard a lot about Microsoft getting bad press for implementing DRM technologies in Windows Vista (it seems to me that Hollywood gave them very little choice in order to allow Vista to play back high definition content); Apple’s Steve Jobs has spoken out in favour of dropping DRM in iTunes (and Daring Fireball published an alternative view on what Jobs might actually be saying – my view is that it’s an elaborate ploy by Apple not to appear as “the bad guys” as unrest with the questionable legality of the iTunes Store grows in mainland Europe); and EMI are reported as considering the release of their catalogue in a DRM-free format (make the most of it before they are bought by Warner).

Of course, supporters of DRM (which may be enforced via TPM) insist that without it, piracy and theft of copyrighted content will spiral out of control. Perhaps they should look at why this might be – only last week I wrote about how I had considered downloading music from underground sources because I couldn’t get hold of it legally. Over-zealous use of DRM will drive law-abiding citizens like myself to break copyright because the latest wave of DRM measures goes too far. With previous content (including digitally-produced CDs), I could make a copy for personal use under fair use legislation. So why should I have to buy high definition content over and over, just so that I can watch it on my TV, my computer and my iPod?

As the transition of audio/video content to an online delivery mechanism continues to gather pace, the vast majority of consumers will still buy their music/video legally – at least in the first world – and let’s face it, do we really need to clamp down on this phenomenon in the developing world? Isn’t that just greed?

Sony BMG’s rootkit fiasco showed how copy protection could be taken too far – a complete breakdown in the public’s ability to trust of one of the world’s largest content providers. If I’m to trust the content providers not to put bad things on my computer and if trust really is, by definition, mutual then why do we need DRM?

(A few moments ago, a poll of almost 6000 readers of the UK Financial Times – not exactly known for dumbing down to the masses – showed that 98% of those polled were in favour of music companies dropping DRM).

6 Comments

  • Maria
    Tuesday 27 February 2007 - 17:29 | Permalink


    Hi Mark

    Interesting post raising some questions about DRM. I’ve been thinking a lot about how it applies to video — which I think is a very different issue than music files. It’s just much harder to download and share video over the network. For high quality movies, the files are huge. As some have pointed out, size is still the best copy protection for high-quality video files.

    I just don’t think it’s as big of a threat for video.

    - Maria

  • Tuesday 6 March 2007 - 20:07 | Permalink


    Hi Maria,
    Thanks for contributing a very interesting comment; however if we look at how bandwidth to the home has increased over recent years (in 2002 I was on a dial-up connection which averaged 33.6Kbps, in 2007 we are looking at 2-8Mbps for many home users with even more bandwidth on the horizon) then it’s entirely conceivable that additional bandwidth will bring threats to the video content industry in two ways – firstly, new content delivery mechanisms to embrace; and secondly, the gradual erosion of the argument that the size of video files is a barrier to piracy.

    Mark

  • Tuesday 3 April 2007 - 23:39 | Permalink


    I need to publish a correction to this post – there is no fair use legislation in the UK (see the comments on my Multimedia file format conversions, ripping DVDs, playback and more post). That just shows how outdated our copyright laws are…

    Mark

  • Wednesday 4 July 2007 - 19:34 | Permalink


    Yes we do.
    As long as some people license rights to “content” and they don’t trust licensees to stick to what they’re allowed to do there will be a need for DRM.

    The music industry has worried about piracy for years… remember “Home taping is killing music” ? If legal copies are easy to work with and cheap the incentive for piracy goes away.
    Some recordings (bootleg recordings) only get to fans illegally. For a while it was easier to get a pirate copy than a legal one. I think that has caused the industry to think that DRM is the only solution. It’s part of a set of solutions

    By the way (1) “With previous content (including digitally-produced CDs), I could make a copy for personal use under fair use legislation.” there is no such fair use provision in UK law. So why should I have to buy high definition content over and over, Well presumably you’d be happy to pay more to have the flexibility to have it on all devices. Why should I pay more if I only want it on my TV ? Inflexible content is OK if it is cheap enough

    By the way (2) , TPM is just a way of storing keys. If every computer had a TPM you could tie a key to allow use of something to a machine in a reliable way.

  • Wednesday 4 July 2007 - 19:47 | Permalink


    Hi James,
    Thanks for stopping by – I’m not sure that we’ll ever agree on this one but it’s good to add the views of the software vendor that many of the content providers seem to be using into the balance!

    “If legal copies are easy to work with and cheap the incentive for piracy goes away”

    Absolutely – which is why competing DRM systems are anti-consumer and damage the ease of use for legal copies.

    “Presumably you’d be happy to pay more to have the flexibility to have it on all devices. Why should I pay more if I only want it on my TV?”

    Which is why the way that Apple and EMI have settled on DRM-free music purchases is so good. I can have the low-quality DRM-restricted version for one price, or the higher-quality, DRM-free version for a small (25%) premium.

    Re: fair use – yep. You’re absolutely right. I corrected myself on that one in an earlier comment.

    Cheers, Mark

  • Monday 6 August 2007 - 16:44 | Permalink


    According to Mark James, if we have to have DRM, then we should have an open standard to allow it to work across multiple platforms. That sounds good to me, but then again, Mark and I do have a lot in common.

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