Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Piracy and the Digital Jack Sparrow

The futility of Digital Rights Management (DRM) is, to me, summed up in a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (a.k.a. the first one) . Sparrow and Turner are fighting in the blacksmith's shop. Turner has the upper hand in sword combat, but then Sparrow pulls out a pistol.

Will Turner: You cheated.
Jack Sparrow: Pirate.

DRM has a fundamental problem that I don't think is possible to overcome: at some point, legitimate users must be able to access the content. Be it on Blu-ray, streaming video, audio files for an iPod, or an XBox game, eventually the end-user needs to be able to consume that digital content; otherwise there's nothing to sell. But this very same access also allows the Captain Sparrows of the world the opportunity to engage in piracy.

It's like handing someone an uncrackable safe and then telling them the combination to open it. "But when you open it, you have to abide by our rules! Just look into the safe; don't take anything out!" Okay, sure, no company is going to literally hand over the decryption keys, but they do the next closest thing: providing hardware or software that does it for us. Blu-ray players and programs can be disassembled and reverse-engineered.

Deterrence is the best that DRM can hope to accomplish — companies can add more hoops and make things more difficult to figure out in the hopes of discouraging would-be pirates. But it only takes one success to break the DRM and then it's out for the world. Not to mention that time-honored simple methods still work just fine: a video camera pointed at a TV screen won't provide a perfect recreation, but for many pirates it's good enough.

In some ways, I think that copyright makes a better deterrent than DRM, though that is certainly fraught with problems too. Copyright provides for some additional legal recourse but doesn't serve as a real barrier itself.

So in the end, what purpose is DRM serving? It tends to be an annoyance to pirates, but not a prevention. It adds extra complexity (and therefore price) to what is being sold. It tends to be a nuisance to legitimate customers. It seems that many companies regard it as a necessary evil; they claim that removing all DRM would make it too easy for pirates. But if only one pirate has to succeed for them all to win, that difficulty argument loses a lot of steam.

One counter example that I've seen surface a few times (and sorry, I don't have any specific links on-hand) is the idea that you can go DRM-free if you lower the barrier to entry. Pirates are always going to be pirates, so don't spend too much time worrying about them. Instead, make it easier to purchase the item than to find and download an illegal version. This seems especially effective when combined with a low price.

The iTunes music store seems to be on track with this kind of solution. iTunes has made it extremely simple to buy music. Everyone knows where to go to get it, and the songs are cheap. Also, iTunes has your credit card info, so purchasing is easy. For the average user, it's much easier (and safer) to just buy the songs they want and remain honest. With the RIAA and MPAA foaming at the mouth and rabidly chasing after any slightest infraction, it's much better to avoid their wrath.

So to wrap up, DRM is fundamentally broken. It just cannot work. When faced with piracy, it is a perpetual Will Turner, always surprised that someone cheated. For sake of disclaimer, I'm not condoning piracy in any way. I'm just saying that DRM is futile.