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DRM explained

Updated Thursday, 8th February 2018
The EFF's John Perry Barlow and Ray Corrigan of The Open University decry attempts to provide digital locks on content.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: John Perry Barlow, internet pioneer, died February 7th 2018. In 2010 he was a participant in the OU/BBC programme The Virtual Revolution, and we were lucky enough that he agreed to offer some extra insights for OpenLearn.

For John Perry Barlow, DRM locks fundamentally break the system they're supposed to protect.


John Perry Barlow

I said that that was going to be a temporary and probably not very effective solution.  I mean I think if I, I hope I made it clear that I thought that it was going to be speed bump for a transitional phase where we figured out how the economy really works in this area.  And that’s exactly what it’s been.  I mean encryption is not going to work, DRM is not going to work, you know, it breaks the system, but, you know, it does have the effect of temporarily making it difficult to get something that you want to place a commercial value based on time with.



Sony discovered that DRM solutions could cause more problems than they solved, explains Ray Corrigan.

John Perry Barlow’s right when he says DRM breaks the system. Essentially DRM was originally touted as a copyright protection system but what it does is it controls access to digital files, movies and music, etc, that you want to play on your digital systems. DRM you can think of as a digital lock behind which resides the file that you want to play. Some people like to think of it as a digital fence or a digital straightjacket and the digital file, the movie or the music or the book or whatever is locked inside this.

To be able to get access to it you need to have a player which contains the key to the lock which will enable you to open it and play the file. So for example, a DVD comes with a content scrambling system, DRM, and licensed DVD players have the key to unlock that lock so that you can play the DVD on your system. That’s why, for example, if you get a DVD, buy a DVD in the US you’ll find it often doesn’t play on a UK player because it doesn’t have the right key.

Now, this issue about DRM preventing copying, it never actually did prevent copying, what it does is control access via the key system that I was talking about. Commercial pirates can still copy on an industrial scale DVDs, music, books, etc, which have got these digital locks attached, and they can distribute them on an industrial scale, they just copy them locks and all.

And the people that lose out as a result of the DRM system, which essentially doesn’t work, are consumers and the companies whose reputation gets damaged as a result of things going wrong with them. So consumers get inconvenienced when the thing doesn’t work properly or they don’t have the right file or they don’t have the right key, or software gets updated so they can’t get access to stuff they’ve already bought, and companies’ reputation gets damaged when things go wrong.

So for example, you had the notorious Sony DRM Rootkit fiasco in 2005 I think it was, when millions of CDs were sold with a digital lock system which caused security problems on people’s computers when they played them on the computers.


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