Do we really need trusted computing and digital rights management?

This content is 17 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

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).

This time it’s Apple who’s heading to court

This content is 18 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

Generally, news about yet another anti-trust suit bores me. Intended to protect consumer interests against monopolistic suppliers, it seems to me that anti-trust court cases rarely have that effect and are more often than not just a chance to beat up an established supplier when another vendor’s product fails to gain the market share that they think it should.

In a world of marketing and hype, the best products don’t always become popular. Betamax was better than VHS but VHS is still in many of our homes today. MiniDisc was better than DCC, but ultimately they both lost out to recordable CD (and then DVD).

Just over a year ago, I set out my views on why I think the EU’s sanctions against Microsoft were wrong. Sure, Microsoft is playing along and stretching things out as long as they can, but the EU seems to be getting tough and the US DoJ is starting to wake up again too.

The trouble is that, by the time a technology case gets to court, the damage is already done. In the same post about why Microsoft shouldn’t have to unbundle Windows Media Player, I pointed out that Apple were acting monopolistically with the way they force iPod owners to use iTunes. Now, after years of acting in this manner, Apple are finally being sued. In last Friday’s Windows IT Pro magazine network WinInfo Daily Update, Paul Thurrott reports that:

“This week, a federal judge in California cleared the way for the first-ever antitrust suit against Apple because of the iPod… noting that the complaint alleges Apple has an 80 percent share of the market for legal digital music files and more than 90 percent of the market for portable hard-drive digital music players. Like Microsoft, Apple is being sued under the Sherman Antitrust Act.”

I have to agree with Paul’s summary of the situation:

“If Apple opens up the iPod to Microsoft’s Windows Media Audio (WMA) format – including songs purchased from competing online music services – all will be well.”

That would certainly make me happy.

Why I think copy protection has gone too far

This content is 18 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

There’s been much written recently about Sony BMG’s inclusion of a rootkit in some of their copy-protected CDs (for more information, see Mark Russinovich’s SysInternals blog). Indeed, it’s now being reported that our friendly global monopolist (Microsoft, not Sony) is going to remove the rootkit from our PCs via Windows Defender (formerly Windows AntiSpyware).

What I fail to understand is the need for all of this. Last year I had problems with a copy protected CD from BMG that wouldn’t play in my car CD player (actually, it wasn’t technically a CD as it didn’t follow the standards for Compact Discs, but was another 120mm polycarbonate plastic disc masquerading as a CD to prevent illegal copying). BMG offered to replace it if I could supply proof of purchase but I’d already shredded the receipt and anyway, I changed cars a few days later and it worked in the new player.

I buy my CDs for around £8.99 from play.com (or sometimes in the local supermarket). EMI, a major competitor to Sony BMG, is reporting massive rises in digital music sales, but at the same time says traditional CD sales are down. But consider this – most CDs in the UK have around 12 tracks. If, instead of buying a physical CD, I licensed the tracks from iTunes, that would be £9.48, there would be no media or distribution costs (and I’d be restricted as to the number of devices on which I could play them). With analysts predicting that by 2009, 25% of music sales will be online, that sounds like increased profits to me. Sure there will be some piracy eating into that, but it’s not a new problem. In the ’80s, I (like many of my peers) used to record the top 40 on tape because I didn’t have the funds that today’s teenagers do to buy records (for the kids reading this, a record is an old-fashioned term for a music disc – they used to be larger, usually black – but coloured or picture discs were very sought after – and needed a special player with a needle…).

So do we really need all this copy protection? After all, it’s only a matter of time before some hacker finds a way around it. What we need is universal (no pun intended) access to legal music downloads (no Apple iTunes nonsense whereby you can only buy from the store in the country where your credit card is registered). With sensible pricing, sensible licensing, and a reasonable proportion finding its way to the artist (i.e. not the web site owner or the record company) then maybe people will buy more music, especially with all the bad press about security that peer-to-peer file sharing networks get. Stranger things have happened…