On Thursday, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office published a new Apple patent application titled "Securing and controlling access to digital data," which describes how motion tracked by an input device other than a keyboard -- say, an iPhone touch pad -- can be used to emulate a combination lock to secure digital data.
While this isn't DRM, strictly speaking, the patent application nonetheless contemplates the technology's use as a means of access control, which is, after all, the primary function of DRM.
"With ever increasing popularity and use of digital data, securing digital data has become a major concern," the patent application states. "Accordingly, security techniques for securing digital media would be highly useful and valuable to various entities that typically have procured digital assets at a significant cost. These entities, for example, range from an individual who has purchased a single digital item (e.g., a song or a picture) to a corporation that has spent millions of dollars to store data crucial to operation of the corporation (e.g., medical records, financial accounts) in a digital form."
Moreover, other Apple patent applications have more explicitly detailed DRM-related research. Apple's "Secure software updates" patent application, for example, describes a method to update DRM software.
Not that there's anything wrong with it. Data access controls have their uses -- future iPhone owners will no doubt welcome having their data protected if they lose the device.
The issue becomes complicated when those who would apply access controls deny the rights of others. There is in fact a distinction between technologically enforced copy restrictions and the rights granted under copyright law. Saying something is a "right" doesn't make it so.
And it's here that Jobs' call to end DRM rings hollow. Apple has said third-party developers won't have access to its iPhone. The company's operating system only runs on Apple hardware. Calling for the music industry to open up while Apple retains control over its closed assets doesn't quite seem like fair play.
The irony here is that while Apple's new research into gesture-based access won't do anything to eliminate DRM, it might just fulfill Microsoft chairman Bill Gates' longstanding prediction that passwords are on their way out.