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A Behind-The-Scenes Look At How DRM Becomes Law

Cory Doctorow looks at the back room dealing that allowed entertainment companies and electronics companies to craft public policy on digital rights management.

The gutshot Betamax doctrine will bleed out all over the technology industry for decades (or until the courts or Congress restore it to health), providing a grisly reminder of what happens to companies that try to pour the entertainment companies' old wine into new digital bottles without permission. The tape-recorder was legal, but the digital tape-recorder is an inducement to infringement, and must be stopped.

The promise of access to content and the threat of legal prosecution for non-compliance is enough to lure technology's biggest players to the DRM table.

I started attending DRM meetings in March, 2002, on behalf of my former employers, the Electronic Frontier Foundation. My first meeting was the one where Broadcast Flag was born. The Broadcast Flag was weird even by DRM standards. Broadcasters are required, by law, to deliver TV and radio without DRM, so that any standards-compliant receiver can receive them. The airwaves belong to the public, and are loaned to broadcasters who have to promise to serve the public interest in exchange. But the MPAA and the broadcasters wanted to add DRM to digital TV, and so they proposed that a law should be passed that would make all manufacturers promise to pretend that there was DRM on broadcast signals, receiving them and immediately squirreling them away in encrypted form.

The Broadcast Flag was hammered out in a group called the Broadcast Protection Discussion Group (BPDG) a sub-group from the MPAA's "Copy Protection Technology Working Group," which also included reps from all the big IT companies (Microsoft, Apple, Intel, and so on), consumer electronics companies (Panasonic, Philips, Zenith), cable companies, satellite companies, and anyone else who wanted to pay $100 to attend the "public" meetings, held every six weeks or so (you can attend these meetings yourself if you find yourself near LAX on one of the upcoming dates).

CPTWG (pronounced Cee-Pee-Twig) is a venerable presence in the DRM world. It was at CPTWG that the DRM for DVDs was hammered out. CPTWG meetings open with a "benediction," delivered by a lawyer, who reminds everyone there that what they say might be quoted "on the front page of the New York Times," (though journalists are barred from attending CPTWG meetings and no minutes are published by the organization) and reminding all present not to do anything that would raise eyebrows at the FTC's anti-trust division (I could swear I've seen the Microsoft people giggling during this part, though that may have been my imagination).

The first part of the meeting is usually taken up with administrative business and presentations from DRM vendors, who come out to promise that this time they've really, really figured out how to make computers worse at copying. The real meat comes after the lunch, when the group splits into a series of smaller meetings, many of them closed-door and private (the representatives of the organizations responsible for managing DRM on DVDs splinter off at this point).

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