Not all DRM is bad (and other thoughts)

HTML5 VideoI’d like to follow on my earlier post that HTML5 needs DRM (specifically, Encrypted Media Extensions, or EME) with some other thoughts.

Not all DRM is bad. While technologists and consumer groups disagree with DRM in principle (users should own content they purchase outright) and implementation (DRM is easily circumvented, so why bother?), there is at least one legitimate use cases for DRM: internal content. Oftentimes internal content is meant for a specific person, group or organization, and is not meant for or ready for public consumption.

EME compartmentalizes DRM and brings developers and users back to the web. Today, the only options for DRM’ed video or document playback consist of heavy, closed plugins such as Flash or Silverlight, or closed apps that are entirely off the web (iOS, Android, Windows 8, desktop). Both of these options compete with the web as a platform, and steal developer and consumer interest away. But fencing DRM capabilities into an HTML5-compatible plugin pushes DRM into a background and can help bring development back to the web.

“No DRM” principles can’t change economic reality, but contained DRM can. The Free Software Foundation and Electronic Frontier Foundation push for “no DRM”. One of their many arguments is that DRM doesn’t work. A determined hacker can bypass any encryption or management scheme that exists, with the benefit of time. So why bother polluting standards with DRM? Yes, it is true that DRM can be circumvented with time, but it doesn’t change the economic and legal realities of today:

  • Companies that create content want some levels of assurance that their content won’t be stolen when delivered to third parties, and write this into contracts. No system better than DRM (specifically, encryption and revocation) exists today.
  • Simply providing content that is DRM-free but watermarked is insufficient (not to mention extremely expensive and technically challenging). I will likely write more on this later.

Baby steps to a DRM-free world. As Peter Bright @ ArsTechnica suggests, one of the benefits of EME is to allow content creators to tiptoe into DRM-free distribution, which may lead to an eventual transition to “No DRM”. Expecting them to dump DRM from all existing contracts and approaches without a gradual path to achieve this simply will not work because of the realities of today. And EME can provide that gradual path.

Further reading. Some good, thoughtful* articles on the pros and cons of this decision:

 

* Thoughtful compared to the “I hate DRM! Boycott Netflix!” one-sided nonsense that pervades vocal tech commentators today.

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