Sunday, May 6, 2007

David(s) vs. Goliath and DRM

Many of you may have missed the exciting David(s) vs. Goliath story that unfolded last week in the context of the publication of the key used to decrypt HD-DVDs. You can read a detailed account in the article "Digg gives in to user revolt" published by Search Engine Land. In short, here's what happened.

HD-DVDs are encrypted to prevent copyright violations (a form of Digital Rights Management, or DRM). Needless to say, someone broke this encryption and published the key needed to decrypt HD-DVDs. Cory Doctrow, a Boing Boing writer, published this key on a class blog hosted on Blogger. Google was then served a DMCA notice by the industry-backed AACS to remove this blog entry, claiming that the key was protected by copyright. Google had to comply.

Doctrow then wrote another blog entry explaining what had happened with a pointer to a site that encouraged people to spread the key. That site became popular on Digg, a community-based site that ranks popularity of pages. But Digg was also asked to remove references to the key from their site by another DMCA notice. Users of Digg were upset by this and started "digging" other articles about this key in large numbers. Digg couldn't keep up with all the "digging", and certainly couldn't remove all the "offending" posts. On that day Digg's site was intermittently down from all the traffic! Finally, Digg listened to its users and agreed not to delete any more stories about the key from its site and instead fight the AACS over these DMCA notices. At least for the time being, the Davids (Digg users) beat out Goliath (the AACS).

These events reminded me of a very fine talk that Cory Doctrow gave at Microsoft Research on DRM. I highly recommend you read the transcript of this talk. The following is the outline of the talk:
  1. That DRM systems don't work
  2. That DRM systems are bad for society
  3. That DRM systems are bad for business
  4. That DRM systems are bad for artists
  5. That DRM is a bad business-move for MSFT
The whole talk is excellent. But section 4 (on why DRM systems are bad for artists) is particularly interesting. He traces various technological innovations through the ages that appeared to threaten copyright, and shows that artists have always done well. The basic insight is:

Technology that disrupts copyright does so because it simplifies and cheapens creation, reproduction and distribution. The existing copyright businesses exploit inefficiencies in the old production, reproduction and distribution system, and they'll be weakened by the new technology. But new technology always gives us more art with a wider reach: that's what tech is *for*.

Copyright and DRM are enormously important issues in this digital age. This talk will help you form (or refine) your opinion on them.

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