Questions in DRM debate: what is locked, who owns it, who has keys

This morning I was pointed to an article on Michael Geist's website that included a video created at the Vancouver Film School, which recently won the school's award for public enlightenment. While I applaud the quality of the video and the clarity of the message, I don't agree that it is a correct depiction of DRM.

terms&conditions from mediamold on Vimeo.

The video suggests that it is "publishers" have the keys to DRM, and are the ones in control of the system. There are actually two sets of keys, and the one on content that the publishers have influence over should be the least of our concerns.

  • keys to a lock on the content which makes the content only able to be opened on brands of devices that are authorised by the publishers. The publishers give the unlocking keys to device manufacturers, or more often the device manufacturers provide locking keys to publishers.
  • keys to a lock on the devices themselves, where these keys are held by the device manufacturer.

(See:The two locks of DRM)

The restrictions discussed are not under the control of the publisher, but the device manufacturer. The device manufacturer may have a contractual arrangement with a publisher to control the content in ways that the publisher wants, but ultimately all the actual control is in the hands of the device manufacturers.

The content, locked or not, has no ability to "make decisions" any more than a paperback book has the ability to read itself out loud. All the logic of what does or does not happen with a device is encoded in software, and under a DRM system that software is imposed by the device manufacturer.

This is a problem in this debate -- much of it is based on science fiction, not science.

Many DRM opponents focus all their attention on copyright holders. I think that rather than getting angry at them, that we should be concerned for their interests and try to inform them on how DRM works. If you look closely, they are being played as pawns in a game by a few technology companies. Non-owner locks on devices is just as, if not more, harmful to the interests of copyright holders than it is audiences of content.

I strongly disagree with those who think that the specifics of the rules desired by publishers matter. Even if not a single piece of content had DRM on it, but our devices did, the actual harm would be the same. Once we legalize or legally protect non-owner locks on our devices, the harm is already done -- regardless of anything that can be confused as being related to "Copyright" or publishers.