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So what's wrong with DRM in the platform anyway?

So what's wrong with DRM in the platform anyway?

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As I said yesterday, it's going to take a bit of time to get the next article in the "cdrom playback" series working, so I thought I'd turn the blog around and ask the people who read it a question.

I was reading Channel9 the other day, and someone turned a discussion of longhorn into a rant against the fact that Longhorn's going to be all about DRM (it's not, there will be DRM support in Longhorn, just like there has been DRM support in just about every version of Windows that's distributed windows media format).

But I was curious.  Why is it so evil that a platform contain DRM support?

My personal opinion is that DRM is a tool for content producers.  Content Producers are customers, just like everyone else that uses our product is a customer.  They want a platform that provides content protection.  You can debate whether or not that is a reasonable decision, but it's moot - the content producers today want it.

So Microsoft, as a platform vendor provides DRM for the content producers.  If we didn't, they wouldn't use our media formats, they'd find some other media format that DOES have DRM support for their content.

The decision to use (or not use) DRM is up to the content producer.  It's their content, they can decide how to distribute it.  You can author and distribute WMA/WMV files without content protection - all my ripped CDs are ripped without content protection (because I don't share them).  I have a bunch of WMV files shot on the camcorder that aren't DRM'ed - they're family photos, there's no point in using rights management.

There are professional content producers out there that aren't using DRM for their content (Thermal and a Quarter is a easy example I have on the tip of my tongue (as I write this, they've run out of bandwidth :( but...)).  And there are content producers that are using DRM.

But why is it evil to put the ability to use DRM into the product?

  • <p>I don't think that most (sane) users believe that the option of DRM is inherently evil. I do think that most users, myself included, are afraid of Microsoft's DRM because it doesn't make any provisions (that I'm aware of) toward what I see as fair uses of content I've paid money to use. In this context it seems that Microsoft is siding with content producers <em>against</em> other users, rather than positioning its platform as an impartial intermediary that both groups can trust.</p>
  • "My personal opinion is that DRM is a tool for content producers. Content Producers are customers, just like everyone else that uses our product is a customer."

    To me this sounds more like they are your partners. I guess that a partner is a kind of customer, but they are not the same kind of customer that my mom is.
  • Darren,
    You're putting forward an argument that DRM from the producer is bad.
    That's not what I'm asking about, I'm asking about DRM in the PLATFORM.

    There's a big difference. Also, OGG and WMA are comparable (I think WMA is a bit better, but it fundamentally doesn't matter - OGG and WMA are both good codecs). Both support non DRM'ed playback.

    Or are you really saying that because the WMA content has the POTENTIAL to be DRM'ed it is inherently flawed? I don't follow that argument.
  • "Have to agree with the earlier comments - DRM is a band-aid to patch up a broken business model"

    Ditto. The media producing industry has a long history of stupid policies towards copy protection. Jack Valenti has even gone on record saying (years ago) that the videotape would destroy the movie industry. 25 years later, videotape and successor formats are at the very heart of the movie industry's business model. DRM is as much an attempt to prolong an existing (flawed) business model as was an attempt to ban videotape.

    The other 'evilness' to DRM has to do with the fact that it can be a powerful lever to use against open source. If software needs to be signed to run on a piece of hardware, that's a pretty good way to exclude an open source OS. If software needs to be signed to run on a particular OS, that's a good way to exclude an open source media player. Taken to the extreme, it would make a computer work kind of like a cell phone running J2ME, where third party developers are limited to using a severe subset of the platform's capability.
  • One more thing: the origins of the personal computer are in personal freedom. People developed and used PC's (not just IBM's) so they could get away from centrally run, centrally controled machines. DRM represents a loss of personal freedoms, even if it's mostly symbolic, that runs counter to this tradition.
  • The other thing that caused a lot of problems was that at least WMP8 that came with Windows XP, and I think some other versions, was set to use DRM on all the tracks people ripped from their own CDs.
    Of course when reinstalling their systems, or suffering a hard disc problem even when they thought they had backed up, a load of people couldn't access their own tracks any more. Theres nothing like the frustration when you find that the 1000 or so tracks you have painstakingly ripped and catagorised are now useless to you.

    I think the default has now been changed to not use DRM, but honestly why would anyone ever have wanted to use it in the first place?
  • I really do not have a problem with it right now. I use MSN Music. At least I did for one albulm. I may or may not use it again. So I do not think it is Evil in any way I just do not think it is well thought out and well Beta so to speak. So why is so rejected that Microsoft is implementing. Windows 95 crashes and bugs will haunt MS I think forever. You know me I am a pretty die hard MS FAN. DRM is beta and not well thought out I think that before MS Implements it needs to really be defined better.

    It is not that I do not like it or do not like the idea of it, it is just that I do not know how it is going to pan out. For Example the number one thing I have music traded is Out of Print stuff. Stuff I had on Tape or Yes 33 speed Albums that is no longer in print. So the one albulm I bought from msn music that is DRM protected. What happens if it goes out of print and then later loose my hard drive and say I never got it backed up. Am I now out of luck? I can no longer listen to music I enjoy. There is a vast ammount of music that is out of print that I still listen to this day and was very very happy when I was able to get it again from Napster in its hey day. So what now happens when something goes out of print. Can the DRM guys just disable it on my computer? Like I say there is a log of it undefined. Beta
  • Edward,
    You may be right on that one, and you're right, it does seem like a silly default. I'll ask the player team to see if I can find out why..
  • The problem with DRM is that it hurts legitimate users only. Those who steal music can EASILY bypass practically ANY DRM. DRM is just bits and bytes, and if a human can think it, another human can destroy it. It'll be an eternal cat and mouse game until someone quits yet the ONLY people affected are legit users.

    I believe getting around a current restriction is itself an evil act, though people continually do it without reprocussion. I do think it's a band-aid on a flawwed business model and that content producers want MORE MONEY for LESS WORK. A CD I bought 10 years ago was perfectly fine to the RIAA back then yet that same CD bought now is completely locked down for one purpose: more money. I shouldn't HAVE to pay more money for the same exact content I could have 10 years ago. Inflation is real and I do understand upping prices to compensate but the fact of the matter is companies WANT subscription models becuase it means less work for them. Hell if they could they'd rather do NO work and get money for it. I'm sorry but in this world you get a service (money) for a service (goods). If we went back a couple hundred years when BARTER was the standard form of payment, this mentality wouldn't work. It would be considered STEALING yet now it's perfectly acceptable? A crook in a 3 peice suit is still a crook and I'll call it like I see 'em.

    I do admit that things like copying are a problem for content producers but there should be an acceptable understanding of what's "legal". Me giving you a burned copy of a CD is "ethically wrong" and morals should decide the outcome but me copying the music to another device because perhaps that device DIED, well ethically that is acceptable. I bought it, I paid for it, so I should be able to do whatever I want within the confines of the equipment I OWN. That's how I think it SHOULD be but I don't think it'll ever get there. Yes, pirating is a problem that I will admit but punishing EVERYONE for it? I don't consider that a wise choice. I do agree something has to be done, just not this something because those that have been getting around the current restrictions will turn right around and find ways around the new ones. This will happen until the end of the known universe though I'd love to be proven wrong.
  • "You're putting forward an argument that DRM from the producer is bad."
    No, I'm arguing that DRM is bad full stop. How do any of my arguments change in light of the fact that Microsoft may change the format? That portable music players may drop support for old versions of WMA? When the authentication server is down, how do I get a renewed license? What if some uber-format comes out that has a five or ten times better compression ratio than existing formats? Would I be able to convert my DRM'd tracks?

    "Also, OGG and WMA are comparable"
    Really? . BTW, Ogg is a container format, Vorbis is the codec.

    "Both support non DRM'ed playback."
    I don't care. Tell me, how much does a WMA encoder cost me?

    "Or are you really saying that because the WMA content has the POTENTIAL to be DRM'ed it is inherently flawed? I don't follow that argument."
    Nope, I'm saying that I can use/implement Ogg Vorbis on whatever I want without fear of being sued by Microsoft.
  • I live in Brazil and we too suffer with DRM'd content, simply because the media companies are the same all around the world and all of them (well, almost all) are US companies, affiliated to the RIAA/MPAA... (note that I'm not being anti-american here, I respect them and I think that if any other country - even mine - were at their economical position, our companies would behave the same way yours do, so, it's in human nature...)

    Jeremy Brayton, you said:
    "Me giving you a burned copy of a CD is "ethically wrong" and morals should decide the outcome".
    Well, I can think of a situation where I (and probably most people) wouldn't think it's unethical... What it if said CD is out of print and a friend or relative wants a copy? Should I tell him "You're out of luck!" ???
    Hell, no, I certainly would copy it and don't think I'd be hurting anyone's bussiness in doing that!

    Another quote from you, Jeremy: "I believe getting around a current restriction is itself an evil act, though people continually do it without reprocussion."

    Ok, let me tell you a little story of mine...
    A friend bought a CD (pirated!) that I liked, from a local band! I could easily have ripped or copied it for me, but since I liked it very much, I decided to buy the original... And so I did it, to my sad surprise!! The disc was DRM'd (distributed by EMI) and the notice about this fact was too small and on the back of the cover!

    So, I bought it without knowing this, and only noticed it when I tried playing it on my Win XP computer, and it launched an app install, it's own player! On the computer, I can't see the tracks, or even play it using Winamp ou WMP. Worse, I can't play it on a Linux box (without circumventing the protection) cause the player is Windows only!

    But the "what the hell is this?"-type question was reserved to when I tried it on my car CD player and it wouldn't play almost everytime I tried it, or some times it would play but I couldn't search the disc using fast forward or reverse (or else the disc would return to the begining of track 1).

    My solution? I easily ripped it with Nero (using a brand new LG CD burner, my 4 years old Sony one wouldnt'read it...) and burnt a copy to hear on my car.
    The original sits on my shelf collecting dust, I hear an "illegal" copy on my car and yet I paid the artists (although the lion's share goes to EMI) for the nice work they've done.

    Now I ask you, is this *fair use* "an evil act" as you said? Do I deserve to be prosecuted (the question is moral, irrespective of local laws) and face a huge fine and possibly jail??

    I think these are questions to be thought about!
  • Darren,

    "How much does a WMA encoder cost me?" Nothing (check the license to be sure). Go to:

    for the format SDK. Now if you want to implement the format yourself on a non Windows platform, that's another story, for that, you go to:
    For the ASF Format, it's free:

    For the WMA/WMF format, the license costs are:

    You're right, Vobis and WMA is the pedantically correct comparison (as is Ogg and ASF).

    Was that listening test conducted with a single or double blind methodology? If it wasn't, then it's not a fair test. The only real way to conduct a listening test that's fair is to invite the user into a room and have them listen to the content.

    For example:,1558,1561918,00.asp

    They've got a somewhat different set of results than the listening test you quoted.
  • "Something else that I've not noticed much comment about in the DRM debates is that copyrights *expire*."

    What country are you in?

    In the US they just get extended.
  • [Sorry this got long; just read the numbered points for an executive summary]

    There's nothing wrong with what Microsoft is doing, insofar as it is just reacting to the market - content producers won't sell their content via Microsoft if Microsoft doesn't provide DRM.

    The problems I have with DRM are philosophical, not business-related:

    1) DRM Changes The Default.

    Whereas without DRM, works are available unencumbered by default and are freely exploitable upon copyright termination, with DRM, a creator must go out of his/her way to make content usable after the termination of copyright. That is a Very Long Time (, so you're not likely to find the former owner to ask for the keys. Besides, why would they give you the keys anyway? Who cares about copyright/fair use/public domain/etc if you have good locks on your work?

    Before, everything became free eventually. With DRM, this is an exception case. We're systems people here; we should understand the danger of changing a default like this, or at least be highly suspicious.

    2) DRM Renders Irrelevant Common Law And History.

    Copyright has always admitted the Doctrine of First Sale - if you buy a book, you can re-sell that book to a used book store, give it to a friend, burn it at a book burning party (we have a lot of those here in Kansas...), etc., and all without asking permission from or paying the original creator. This doctrine has its limits, but it has been a part of our common law system since, well, at least as long as Copyright has existed (1704ish), and theoretically long before.

    There is no way to exercise any rights you may have under this doctrine if the content is locked up.

    3) DRM Prevents Fair Use.

    We are guaranteed fair use rights by statutory law and by common law. These rights include the ability to take a short snippet of a work and use it in certain ways, the right to reproduce parts of a work in an academic setting, and more. With the lock in place, you cannot exercise these rights, unless you can talk the creator into un-locking the content.

    4) Exceptions Are Impractical.

    If you aren't very resourceful or very wealthy (a special case of resourceful, I guess), you can't do anything about getting any of your lost rights back. It costs too much to get your lawyer to write a letter to their lawyer, notwithstanding the license fee.

    Anyway, the solution is NOT to get mad at Microsoft, Apple, or anyone else, unless perhaps under a theory of "doing the right thing." That's not really valid either, in the sense that our system doesn't incent corporations to do this particular right thing. Apple's shareholders would all sue Jobs if he decided it was "wrong" to use DRM. Don't blame Microsoft for following the "rules".

    No, this is one of those "tragedy of the commons" issues like environmentalism or anti-trust or child labor - it can only be effectively addressed by public policy.

    Check out Lawrence Lessig's book _Free Culture_ for a much more eloquent and thorough discussion of some of these arguments.
  • It should also be mentioned that Bill G should have learned this in the 80's when copy-protection schemes proved both impractical and sufficiently annoying to users as to cost product sales. The difference is that now Bono can say "Hey Bill, I don't want people stealing my Tunes!" and Bill can pretend that there's a technical solution that works. (But what happens when Bono comes back and says "now fix the analog hole"?)
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