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DRM, Content Protection, and the future of the Web

I remember once when the mere mention of DRM stirred up such a frenzied reaction of blood boiling anger, outrage and disgust, from even the meekest of the meek. Thankfully those days are long gone, and DRM has been largely forgotten, or has it?

DRM Wordle

DRM and the Web

Sadly no, because DRM recently reared its dramatic head yet again following a decision by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to bring video content protection into scope for discussion in their HTML5 Working Group. So what does this mean? Well, it depends on who you ask of course, because the usual pros vs. cons battle lines, championed by various organisations and pundits, have opened up with distinct perspectives on the matter. The following are summary points, culled from a quick web search on the topic.

Some viewpoints in support of the decision:

  1. Sir Tim Berners Lee on Encrypted content and the Open Web – reiterated that W3C staff remain passionate about the open Web, and indeed abhor certain forms of content protection and DRM. However, he went on to explain how putting content protection in scope for discussion is the lesser evil, given that exclusion of this topic from the HTML WG discussions will not necessarily exclude it from anyone’s systems.
  2. W3C Encrypted Media Extensions (EME) Editor’s draft 17th September 2013 – According to the abstract, “the proposal extends HTMLMediaElement providing APIs to control playback of protected content.”  Also, the specification does not define any particular content protection or DRM system, but instead it defines a common API that may be used to discover, select and interact with various such mechanisms / DRM solutions.
  3. ArsTechnica “DRM in HTML5 is a victory for the open Web, not a defeat” – In this post, Peter Bright argues that EME will happen, one way or another, especially given how some important companies (i.e. Microsoft, Google and Netflix) are actively developing the specification. Furthermore, distributors of protected video content already use DRM, albeit outside the Web (e.g. via Microsoft’s Silverlight, Adobe Flash and / or mobile Apps). Finally, he concludes that EME will provide a way to deliver protected content via the Web instead of just using proprietary applications and plug-ins.  .

Other viewpoints against the decision:

  1. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), “Lowering Your Standards: DRM and the Future of the W3C” – The EFF strongly objects to the inclusion of “playback of protected content” into the scope of HTML Working Group’s new charter, stating that such a move would mean the controversial Encrypted Media Extension could be included in the HTML5.1 standard, which would effectively cede control of browsers to 3rd parties (i.e. content providers). Furthermore, they argue, this could ultimately damage the W3C’s reputation / perception as guardian of the open Web, and that other media formats (e.g. images, fonts and music) may push for equivalent content protection standards, over a rapidly fragmenting Web.
  2. Boing Boing “W3C’s DRM for HTML5 sets the stage for jailing programmers…” – Cory Doctorow discusses how the decision will open the possibility of punitive fines or imprisonment for programmers who dare to attempt improving web browsers in ways that displease Hollywood.
  3. DefectiveByDesign “Tell W3C: We don’t want the Hollyweb” – Calls for the W3C to reject the EME proposal, stating that it would damage freedom on the Web and enable unethical, restrictive business models, as well as proliferation of DRM plug-ins needed to play protected media content.

Regardless of which side you take in this debate, it is probably disingenuous to think that DRM ever went away, if anything, it has in fact been thriving in various digital content services and technologies, well outside the limelight and notoriety it had in the past – perhaps until now. One of the key things I learnt during my sojourn into the DRM debate over the last decade, was that most content businesses are ultimately pragmatic in nature, and they now understand that suing customers (or casual pirates depending on viewpoint) can be suicidal, hence the move away from dramatic headlines and into developing services that users actually want to use and pay for.  The saying holds true that the only good DRM system is invisible or transparent to the end user or consumer.

It could be argued that this current debate has arisen because the Web is designed, and perceived by many, to be open and universal, but it is this selfsame universality that allows even potentially restrictive models to have a place on the Web. In fighting for its own survival, and by openly considering inclusion of something like content protection, the W3C is actually living up to the open and universal remit of the Web. However, a real danger remains that commercial interests (aka content businesses) will almost certainly seize this opportunity to compete using flawed and restrictive business models, which will only throw DRM in the faces of their users, and possibly restart litigious campaigns against their users, once the latter decide again that unrestricted (and literally free) content is best. Truly, those that don’t learn from past mistakes are only doomed to repeat them.

In conclusion, although this is probably more than a mere storm in the proverbial teacup, the signs portend that this too shall pass into the annals of DRM aftershocks, in the grand scheme of things.  I say this with some confidence because whilst the DRM battle rages on, the world of digital content, copyright and the Internet continues to evolve new opportunities and challenges that will reshape the digital landscape. A recent example concerns the IP value of curation, e.g. playlists, as a candidate for copyright (e.g. see Ministry of Sound versus Spotify)

BTW:  I will be moderating a panel session, discussing Over the Top (OTT) video content protection, at the Copyright and Technology 2013 London conference, later this week. My panel of experts will most likely have something interesting to say about DRM and the Web. Why not join the debate at the event, if you are in London, otherwise I’ll keep you posted on this blog.

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