Infrastructure // PC & Servers
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3/23/2006
08:11 PM
Andy Dornan
Andy Dornan
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Apple's Demand For A State-Sponsored Monopoly Shows That DRM Aims To Stop Competition, Not Piracy

Companies touting DRM technology claim it's intended to protect data from unauthorized copying. But Apple's angry response to a French plan for iTunes interoperability has let the truth slip out: DRM is designed to lock in customers, not lock down data.

Companies touting DRM technology claim it's intended to protect data from unauthorized copying. But Apple's angry response to a French plan for iTunes interoperability has let the truth slip out: DRM is designed to lock in customers, not lock down data.

Apple accuses France of "state-sponsored piracy" because a copyright bill currently going through the French parliament would require DRM vendors to open their technology to competitors. In reality, France is just trying to avoid the situation in the U.S., where the lobbyist-written Digital Millennium Copyright Act has made interoperability illegal. That isn't just the opinion of the French or the EFF. Earlier this week, the Cato Institute published a report that describes how the DMCA is anti-competitive and hurts innovation.

Despite some work by Sun, all DRM technologies so far are proprietary. If you buy a song from iTunes, it's encrypted using Apple DRM, so you can only copy it to an iPod--not a standard MP3 player. Similarly, Napster and MusicMatch sell songs encrypted using Microsoft DRM, so they can only be copied to players that include Microsoft software. (As in the PC market, Microsoft is content to monopolize only software and services, while Apple wants to monopolize hardware, too.) To interoperate with the Apple or Microsoft formats, other vendors need to license Apple or Microsoft DRM, and neither will license to a competitor.

Even when a vendor does let others license its DRM, it can charge as much as it wants and impose onerous conditions. For example, DVDs are encrypted using DRM from a cartel called the DVD Copy Control Association. To make a DVD player, hardware manufacturers need to license the DRM. And to license the DRM, the manufacturers must agree to restrict what their customers can do. (The agreements have real teeth. Last month, a group of movie studios even sued Samsung for accidentally making a DVD player that gave users too much control.) That's why DVD players sold in the U.S. can't legally skip through the FBI warning, play DVDs from most other countries, or copy a DVD to a laptop's hard disk.

The traditional route to interoperability is through reverse-engineering. However, the DMCA makes reverse-engineering of DRM a felony punishable by 10 years in prison and a $1 million fine. It's only a U.S. law, so programs to remove DRM from iTunes purchases and DVDs are freely available on Web sites hosted in other countries. (Most of them seem to be written by the same person, Jon Johansen.) I wish I could link to them, but even that is illegal under the DMCA.

This isn't just a consumer concern. Microsoft and others are pushing DRM systems for businesses. They're usually rebranded as something else ("Information Rights Management" or "Document Control"), but that's just PR. All are just as proprietary as consumer DRM. Customers who fall for the sales pitch could find themselves unable to access their own data without either agreeing to the DRM vendor's licensing conditions (which can change at any time) or relocating to France.

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