The New Digital Media: You Might Have It, But Not Really Own It

R. A. Hettinga rah at
Sun Aug 15 18:46:53 PDT 2004

Anyone who knows about cryptography quickly comes to the conclusion that if
it's encrypted, and I have the key it's *my* property.

It doesn't matter what the lawyers say -- or even the guys they hire with
guns at your friendly local geographic force monopoly.


Now if we can figure out a way to pay for that property cheap enough that
nobody *cares* who owns it, as long as they get paid...



The Wall Street Journal

 August 16, 2004


The New Digital Media:
 You Might Have It,
 But Not Really Own It

August 16, 2004

Buying music used to be simple: You coughed up $14 or so for a CD, and as
long as you didn't bootleg it or charge crowds of people to listen to it,
the music was yours.

The Internet and other technologies are changing all that, opening up a
slew of new options for purchasing entertainment, be it music or movies or
games. That's a good thing.

The not-so-good thing is that in the next few years, the sheer number and
complexity of those new options are likely to bewilder many consumers. You
may no longer be able to "own a movie" or "own a CD," at least in the sense
those phrases have been used.

Instead, you will merely have "rights" to the content, enforced by
technology. Those rights might change over time, even at the whim of the
music or movie company you get them from.

The technology allowing all this is called digital-rights management, or
DRM. It's a kind of invisible software lock securely bolted onto a song or
movie. Being software, it's a very flexible sort of lock. A music label,
for example, might let you download a song free and then listen to it for a
day, but then require you to pay up to keep on listening.

For a taste of what DRM might bring, check out Apple Computer's iTunes
Music Store, which sells songs for 99 cents.

ITunes comes with a DRM system that prevents customers from playing those
songs on more than five computers, or burning more than seven identical
lists of songs onto CDs. (Before you can play a song on a sixth computer,
you need to use the DRM software to "de-authorize" it from one of the first
five machines.)

Of course, no such technical limits exist on normal music CDs, though
recording companies, especially in Europe, are experimenting with

Some iTunes users are grumbling. In June, science-fiction writer Cory
Doctorow gave a talk critical of DRM technology in which he related how he
hit Apple's limit on the number of computers he could play his music on --
three machines at the time.

One computer was in the shop, another was at his parents' house and a third
was a defective machine he had returned to Apple -- without first
remembering to de-authorize his music on it so he could play it on another
machine. As a result, Mr. Doctorow said he was unable to listen to hundreds
of dollars worth of music.

Apple says such problems aren't common, especially since the company upped
its computer limit to five in April.

But that change itself was a lesson in the power of DRM: Apple's increase
was retroactive, and applied to all songs, not just those purchased after
the change took effect.

In this case, Apple gave users more liberal rights. (It also curbed some
types of CD burning, but the change didn't apply to previously purchased
music.) However, there's nothing preventing Apple from making its DRM
retroactively more restrictive -- though the company says that's unlikely.

Apple set up the iTunes DRM as a way of getting the big labels -- badly
burned by the original Napster -- comfortable with music online. It
deserves credit for helping legalize digital music: iTunes has had more
than 100 million downloads.

And even with the restrictions, iTunes customers more or less "own" their
music once they've bought it. By contrast, consumers only "rent" music at
subscription services like RealNetworks's Rhapsody, which typically charge
a $10 or so monthly fee for playing as much music as customers want.

The catch: Rhapsody subscribers can play their songs only on their PCs, not
portable audio players, and only as long as they keep paying their monthly
bills. That's the main reason these "rental" sites haven't done as well as
iTunes. (By the end of this year, a new version of Microsoft's DRM will
allow subscription users to transfer content to portable players.)

It's not just Internet music that's getting more complicated. Most of
today's movie DVDs contain restrictions that prevent users from copying
them, or playing them in a different geographic region from where they are

But Hollywood studios, along with technology and consumer electronic
companies, are working on a new generation of DVDs that will, in addition
to holding more data for high-definition movies, also have a much more
flexible DRM.

As a result, different studios might end up imposing different DVD
restrictions. You may, for instance, be able to make a copy of the "Toy
Story 4" DVD for your laptop -- but not do the same thing with "Charlie's
Angels 5."

Those variations will likely require some form of labeling on DVDs so
consumers will know what they're getting, according to companies involved
in planning them.

Alan Davidson, associate director of the civil liberties group Center for
Democracy and Technology, says he isn't opposed to DRM, but worries
consumers may not understand what rights come with content they purchase.
"DRM underscores the point that consumers are going to have to become a lot
more sophisticated about what they're buying," he says.

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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