Ray Richards is founder of Mindspan Consultants and a technology journalist hailing from Ottawa, Canada

Skip site navigation and move to main content of page.

Digital Rights Managment - Part 1

Digital technology has freed us from the yoke of traditional content delivery mechanisms in ways we could never have imagined scant years ago. We no longer need to schedule our lives according to the whims of media conglomerates in order to partake of their wares; digital delivery affords us the luxury of entertainment consumption in a manner consistent with our desires. We may pause and rewind live television, enjoy theatre-quality picture and sound within our own residences, and even listen to entire music collections anywhere, anytime on devices so portable as to be viewed essential equipment upon venturing outside the home.

Unfortunately, these new freedoms were bestowed upon a populace ill-equipped to deal with them from a regulatory perspective. Infinitely replicable digital media, when combined with the Internet as a distribution conduit, would lead to some rather serious consequences once users started putting two and two together. With the advent of Napster, the genie was well and truly out of the bottle, leaving media companies scrambling to lobby government to enact legislation in an attempt to re-establish the status quo.

While this lobbying activity's initial intention may well have been restoring the imbalance of power existent in years past, the endeavour has been considerably more fruitful for media companies, especially in the United States.

One of the first pieces of legislation enacted south of the border was the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) in 1998, which among other things makes it illegal to circumvent or enable circumvention by any means the copy protection mechanisms or encryption technol ogies built into any product by the original manufacturer. Upon first reading, this sounds fairly innocuous, however the consequences of this provision are far reaching indeed.

In July 2001, for instance, Dmitry Sklyarov, a 27-year-old PhD student researching cryptography at Moscow University, and programmer for ElmSoft, was attending a security conference in Las Vegas when he was arrested by US authorities and charged under section 1201(b)(1)(A) of the DMCA. Dmitry was thrown in jail and held for three weeks, after which he was released on $50,000 bail with the condition he remain in the United States to address the accusations. He thereafter faced $2,250,000 in fines and up to 25 years in prison should he be found guilty.

What heinous crime had Mr. Sklyarov committed? He participated in his company's creation of software designed to translate documents coded in Adobe's eBook format to standard Acrobat PDF files, enabling the user much more freedom over what he or she could do with the legitimately purchased text. Despite the fact that in most countries this would be characteristic of basic "fair use", and was certainly legal in Russia, the breaking of the encryption itself and disseminating the means for others to do so constituted the crime.

After being forced to spend five months in the States, Dmitry cut a deal with the government to testify against his employer at the upcoming trial and was finally allowed to return to Russia.

Another fine example of the DMCA's misuse may be found in the Linux world. Under the legislation, Linux users were unable to play DVDs on their systems despite having both the required hardware and a genuine copy of the movie they wished to view, since licensed DVD decoders were simply not available for the platform. When software called DeCSS (CSS stands for Content Scrambling System, the encryption mechanism employed on DVDs) was freely released to combat this situation, the DVD Copy Control Association issued over 500 lawsuits in 11 separate nations to shut it down. The DMCA in this instance turned paying customers into criminals.

CSS encryption was so weak, however, that the code to decrypt it could readily be printed on a t-shirt. When clothing manufacturers actually started doing this, the DVD CCA sued them too.

The entertainment industry pursued legal remedies for years and caused severe financial strain for those against whom the suits were directed before finally giving up and moving on to bigger things in January of 2004, in essence acknowledging the situation as futile given the millions of copies available.

While the above illustrates the DMCA's ability to be used as a blunt instrument by corporations to further their interests, it really doesn't speak to the reasons why media companies might be interested in pursuing these protections in the first place. Certainly they are concerned with piracy, but the larger picture relates to a paradigm shift in consumer rights as it pertains to fair use.

When I purchase music, for instance, under fair use I should be able to make copies to preserve my "property" should the original become damaged, should I not? However, in reality I only own the piece of plastic the music came on in the first place and I license the content. When this content is being delivered digitally as well, our claims to ownership are even more tenuous.

To enforce this licensing, media companies have teamed up with hardware and software manufacturers to implement what is known as Digital Rights Management (DRM) that may be used to sharply curtail my power with regards to fair use. I am forced into accepting proprietary file formats that do not allow me to transfer the content from one medium to another, tie me to particular technologies and their associated companies, and often tether me to corporate databases that monitor my media consumption for the purpose of determining how best they might market to my tastes in future.

DRM, under the protection of the DMCA, is becoming increasingly ubiquitous, and the investigation of it will form the basis of next month's article, wherein we'll also examine Canada's more measured legislative response to the issues raised in the digital realm. Until then, why not take a look at "Endangered Gizmos" at www.eff.org/endangered for an entertaining yet thought provoking look at how legislation is stifling innovation.

Digital Rights Management - Part 2

This ariticle was originally published in HUB magazine,Connected column, June 2005, columnist, Ray Richards

Sidebar

Article Index