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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.

Otto von Bismarck quipped, "Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made." I've seen sausages made. I've seen laws made. Both processes are pleasant in comparison to the way anti-copying technology agreements are made.

This technology, usually called "Digital Rights Management" (DRM) proposes to make it hard for your computer to copy some files. Because all computer operations involve copying, this is a daunting task -- as security expert Bruce Schneier has said, "Making bits harder to copy is like making water that's less wet."

At root, DRMs are technologies that treat the owner of a computer or other device as an attacker, someone against whom the system must be armored. Like the electrical meter on the side of your house, a DRM is a technology that you possess, but that you are never supposed to be able to manipulate or modify. Unlike the your meter, though, a DRM that is defeated in one place is defeated in all places, nearly simultaneously. That is to say, once someone takes the DRM off a song or movie or e-book, that freed collection of bits can be sent to anyone else, anywhere the network reaches, in an eyeblink. DRM crackers need cunning: those who receive the fruits of their labor need only know how to download files from the Internet.

Why manufacture a device that attacks its owner? One would assume that such a device would cost more to make than a friendlier one, and that customers would prefer not to buy devices that treat them as presumptive criminals. DRM technologies limit more than copying: they limit uses, such as viewing a movie in a different country, copying a song to a different manufacturer's player, or even pausing a movie for too long. Surely, this stuff hurts sales: Who goes into a store and asks, "Do you have any music that's locked to just one company's player? I'm in the market for some lock-in."

The entertainment industry gets electronics companies to go along with DRM through a combination of rewards and threats.

The reward is the entertainment industries' promise of access to their copyrighted works. Add DRM to your iPhone and we'll supply music for it. Add DRM to your TiVo and we'll let you plug it into our satellite receivers. Add DRM to your Zune and we'll let you retail our music in your Zune store.

And the entertainment industry threatens to sue companies that don't comply. In recent years, entertainment companies fought over the creation of records, radios, jukeboxes, cable TV, VCRs, MP3 players and other technologies that made it possible to experience a copyrighted work without the entertainment companies' permission.

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