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The DRM dilemma facing the open web

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Most of us are pretty used to certain freedoms granted by the open web. Just as you can send a link for any webpage or service to a friend, you can also save an image from a page, examine its code or copy some text to quote in something you’re writing. That way of doing things may be set to change.

The blogs of large corporations are rarely worth reading unless you’re a journalist or a fan of marketing content, but on Wednesday Telefonica(s tef)’s blog carried an interesting article by Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the web and the director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the body that formalizes new web standards.

The piece sums up all the different meanings of the word “open” in the context of the web, data, platforms and so on. It’s a pretty good primer on this stuff, so much of which is under threat these days (pleading the cause of net neutrality on a telco’s blog is pretty sweet, by the way) but it also shows what seems to be Berners-Lee — generally the greatest defender of openness out there — defending himself and the W3C against criticism coming from advocates of openness.

Protected content

My colleague Janko Roettgers has reported on this before — the problem here is the digital rights management (DRM) capabilities that are are likely to be baked into HTML5 and subsequent versions of the web language. The first move in this direction would allow encrypted video to run in a browser without the need for a DRM-friendly plugin such as Silverlight(s msft) or Flash(s adbe) — Netflix(s nflx) has already come up with ways to do this with HTML5, but its techniques are not yet part of the overall standard, which will be finalized in a year’s time.

Download FlashOn the plus side, this would mean the end for annoying playback plugins. However, as the EFF has pointed out, it also means a third party, in this case a content provider such as Netflix, gets to control some of what the user’s browser can or cannot do. And that’s anathema to advocates of openness, who fear the free platform of the web will be subverted.

Just over a week ago, the W3C signed off on a new charter that added the aim of “supporting playback of protected content.” So here’s what TimBL (as he is traditionally and respectfully known in geek circles) had to say on the matter today. It’s a bit hefty, but worth reading in detail:

“While it’s not really a feature of the Web, a concern for a lot of people is whether they can choose which apps run on their own phone or computer. An Open Platform means having the right to install and write software on your computer or device. One motivation to close off a computing platform comes from a manufacturer wanting to allow you to experience their content on your machine without being able to store it or pass it on. Some systems are very closed, in that the user can only watch a movie or play a game, with no chance to copy anything or back it up. Some systems are very open, allowing users to take copies of files and run any application they like. Many systems fall in between, letting users pay for additional material or an experience.

“The W3C community is currently exploring Web technology that will strike a balance between the rights of creators and the rights of consumers. In this space in particular, W3C seeks to lower the overall proprietary footprint and increase overall interoperability, currently lacking in this area.

“In the US particularly, the situation is aggravated by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), two laws which allow a person who uses a computer improperly to be jailed as a felon for a long time. These unjust laws colour the debate so much in the US that some people react by saying that all platforms should be completely open, so that no one can be said to use them improperly. Hopefully these laws will be fixed through debate about how to balance the needs of creative people to be paid and the needs of consumers to be able to contribute but also to be able to rip, mix, quote and archive this material.”

In short, TimBL is describing a tradeoff that he and other high-ups in the W3C seem to think worth it. In the greater war against proprietary, walled gardens — the most threatening of which are currently iOS and Facebook(s fb) — this would involve strategically losing a technical battle over DRM. And as his argument seems to follow, even if DRM is technically allowed, maybe the laws over fair use and so on can be fixed so that users don’t lose the online freedoms they have now.

Principles vs relevance

There are really no easy answers here. On the one hand, I have to say Berners-Lee comes off as a bit… hopeful. Fixing the laws in the U.S. are a tall enough order – throw the rest of the world into the mix, and this all looks unfeasibly optimistic.

Tim Berners-LeeThen there’s the slippery slope argument. To quote the EFF: “By discarding the principle that users should be in charge of user agents, as well as the principle that all the information needed to interoperate with a standard should be open to all prospective implementers, they’ve opened the door for the many rightsholders who would like the same control for themselves.”

In that post, the EFF cited examples of people in the W3C community wanting to allow closed-source web apps, DRM-encumber photos and stop people from copying text. That would all be a very big shift and not, in my opinion, a good one at all.

But at the same time, reality bites. The shift to mobile is crucial here, so look at something like Mozilla’s Firefox OS smartphone platform. Firefox OS, which is still very new and under development, eschews the native app approach in favor of being entirely based on HTML5 – all web apps, all the way.

Now consider Firefox OS’s content conundrum. If you’re a content provider such as the BBC or Spotify or Netflix, or an ebook platform, you’re caught between two entities: the rights-holders, who all want DRM, and the users, who generally have no idea what DRM is and don’t really care. So there’s no way you will produce an app for a platform that doesn’t support DRM – the studios and labels and publishing houses simply won’t allow it, because they don’t want people to be able to freely copy the content they sell. (And yes I know there are ways around such things, but let’s stick to intentions here.)

Firefox OS may be low-cost and aimed at the emerging markets, but it’s up against cheap Android phones that support DRM, and that means it’s up against a platform that can offer users Netflix, Spotify and so on. Not being able to offer this kind of content will hinder Firefox OS’s growth, and by extension the proliferation of web apps in general.

I would dearly love to see web apps really take off. I crave the ability to pass around a link to an app in the same way you’d share a link to a webpage, where the link would work regardless of the underlying computing platform. But you’ve got to stimulate demand – people need to want it, or it will die.

So rock, meet hard place. In order for web standards to stay relevant, they need to give up some of their soul – or so the thinking appears to go. I confess I can’t identify an ideal way through here, and I suspect the W3C finds itself in the same position.

PS (Thursday 10 October) — TimBL has now posted a lengthier defense on the W3C blog. In it, he says: “It is worth thinking… about what it is we do not like about existing DRM-based systems, and how we could possibly build a system which will be a more open, fairer one than the actual systems which we see today.”

7 Responses to “The DRM dilemma facing the open web”

  1. Many users oppose, like me, DRM but end up buying DRM devices, like me, to get (paid) access to content choice. Core problems of DRM from a user standpoint are: (1) can’t get content for free; (2) proprietary DRM code infringes on my civil rights, privacy and security; (3) intrroperability issues and inability to transfer content among platforms.
    (1) is a morally invalid reason: even though rights holders abuse their power position, you can’t fix wealth distribution by making theft legal.
    W3C could solve (2) and (3) by mandarting any DRM solution allowed on the Open Web Platform to comply to requirements for: interoperability, security and privacy. All code of allowed DRM solutions should be public and there should be user-verifiable ways to ensure that running DRM-code has undergone open public and top-experts hacking before it gets onto devices.

  2. naturalwitness

    How many of you will leave your cars unlocked in a city the size of the web?
    I would love to leave my doors unlocked and trust people to pay me by donation.
    Life would be so much easier but reality is this does not work especially on line. It does not work online for small creator like me.
    The attitude of if I can see it on the web I should have it for free with no DRM is no different to seeing a car in a public car park and taking it.
    I am a simple artist creating special films for people with health problems many terminal. I have been working for over 8 years and it is really difficult and I have lost money overall and I hope that will change. Not being able to trust the attitude towards digital files has stopped me selling my HD work on the web or to people on discs as well.
    I would like to spread my work to the many but I need to pay the rent, all the costs and have some money spare to take a break. My saving keep me going from my life before digital.

    There is large social media attitude that does not see the needs of the creator. (Demise of of the music CD industry after vinyl ). It also does not see how much work it takes to produce moving image and sound work.
    Many take it saying they cannot afford it but are happy to go and pay for cup of coffee or a beer or eat out for the same price, that takes way less work to create than films and all that it costs to make including the rapidly changing technology.
    It’s not the money it is the attitude and beliefs.
    It all comes back to understanding and respect. I think a lot of the present long term attitude is kickback against the sense of loss of rights and being controlled by apparently faceless rules of the powers that be. It comes out in the web. In the digital world it is so easy to copy files and nobody knows.
    I would love people to see digital created work for what it is and the human reality behind it. A small guy like me would like some honest honouring of the work I have put in. And it seems protection is the only way. Just like locking your door if you have one.

  3. Cameron Church

    Ignoring, or perhaps casting the spotlight, directly on the relatively ignorant comments to date it would pay for readers/commentators(and commenters) of this debate to remember the following:

    1. Open Web does not equal Free Web. Open Web equals a Standard Web

    2. A Standard, by definition and when used as a noun, is a level of quality / attainment

    3. The charter of the W3C is to ensure no matter what software on what device over what line is used to connect, consume, and ultimately, participate in the ‘Web’ any user will do so in a standard way.

    4. DRM is a system of rules for the acquisition and consumption of content. Not the enforcement for said rules. This akin to the Courts vs Police. If you have a problem with “implementations” of DRM then it’s not with DRM but with its enforcement – hence the NEED for a Standard way to implement DRM becomes even more imperative.

    5. If you have grown up pre-web, watching pay TV, buying DVDs, VHS, Vinyls, Books, or other content containers you have already been an active member of a DRM system. Moving digital has changed the containers but not the system.

    6. The economics of content (production, consumption, and transfer of content) remains the same the currency is Rights. By going to the movies you buy the rights to watch that movie one night only. You subscribe to PayTV or Netflix? You buy the Rights to consume that content. In this model there is a Rights Holder and a Rights Acquirer. Rights are what makes the content world to go around. Understand this fully before attempting to boo it from the cheap seats.

    7. Markets favour Demand, not Technology. History is littered with superior technology losing out to demand (VHS vs BetaMax is just one drop in that sea).

    With that in mind you should hopefully be able to see why W3C is keen to pull this debate (and the control thereof) under its wing. If it doesn’t then W3C will be irrelevant and washed away as one of the world’s most common pasttime (consuming premium video) moves digitally and outside of the ‘Web’ into the emerging new internet implementations of Apps and OTT IPTV etc.

    • Valentine North

      #3 is wrong. W3C exists to create standards for everyone. But not everyone agrees that DRM is good or that copyright is even legal. Because of that, W3C needs to stay out of it.

      #5 and #6 I HAVE lived before the internet, and I can tell you this. It was assumed, that when you bought a CD or a book, they belonged to you. You could give them to friends, and they could give them to others or simply loan them from time to time.

      Today, we discovered that we didn’t own anything. We were merely renting the content and with plastic as the medium.
      Under the new definitions, with digital only content you can’t even loan the book or music anymore, let alone go into the gray area of copying. It’s no longer a matter of protecting their property, but selling more.

      For content owners that complain, that DRMless content kills their sales, let me enlighten you.
      People that pirate your goods will most likely never buy in the first place or have problems making the actual purchase, like faulty websites, obscure or untrustworthy payment methods (I’ve experienced lots of both). Or have some ridiculously stupid pricing schemes (ex. Amazon ebooks priced as high as brand new paperbacks).

      Honestly though, I don’t know why I bother. W3C is a silly joke. The ones that really set the standards are the popular web browsers. As a web developer, I’ve seen this first hand. It’s Firefox that turned the W3C from guidelines to standards. To pass this DRM scheme, they’ll need to convince Mozilla and Google, and I just don’t see that happening.

  4. Timb is sadly mistaken and logicaly inconsistent.

    In the priorities of constituencies he states to prefer users > authors > implementors > spec authors.

    No user wants DRM. The ones pushing DRM are authors like the MPAA/RIAA/BBC etc. and implementors (like Microsoft). EME is a typical example how the W3C prioritizes authors and implementors over users.

    Furthermore, because of how browsers composit web-pages, the raw bytes from the CDM need to be available for the browser (in order to do things like layering things on top of each other or transforming them with CSS).

    But if the CDM gives the plain content to the browser, then the browser could just dump the content to disk, specifically what EME is designed to avoid. Therefore it follows that the CDM cannot be made available to Open Source/community browsers like Firefox, Chromium, Webkit, Khtml etc. and cannot be made available on platforms like Linux, SteamBox, Oyua, Community Android etc.

    If large web properties (like youtube, netflix, amazon, bbc, vimeo, facebook etc.) are compelled for one reason or another to adopt DRM in order to work, then Open Source/community browsers and operating systems will be severly disadvantaged as they’ll be known as “those browsers that don’t work”.

    Open Source/Community browsers are what saved the web from IE6 and the W3C from XHTML. Is this the future that the W3C envisions?

  5. “the users, who generally have no idea what DRM is and don’t really care”: Until they get a new phone or tablet or whatever and find they can’t get copies of things they thought they owned to work on it. At that point, they have an idea what DRM is, and they consider it the spawn of Satan. (Of course, this doesn’t apply to one-off streaming.) If most people indeed have no idea what DRM is – I don’t know whether this is true, but if it is – then the EFF, the Mozilla Foundation, and other advocates of openness had better mount a public education campaign.

    I’m dismayed to see Berners-Lee talking about “a balance between the rights of creators and the rights of consumers.” That’s the language of intellectual-property capitalism, and it’s misleading in two ways. First, most of the people agitating for DRM and the like aren’t creators in any meaningful sense, they’re rights holders who may in fact be screwing over the actual creators of the works to which they hold rights. Second, one of the beauties of the web is the way it has encouraged people to be more than consumers, by “mashing up” and otherwise building on other people’s work. I presume Berners-Lee is aware of all this, but I’d urge him to avoid language that strategically obscures it.