Digital rights management dissected

Last week I was working with some digital video and acquired a few clips which were protected by Windows Media’s Digital Rights Management (DRM) system. This meant that I was prevented from using these clips in my project.

FBI Anti-Piracy Warning

The project in question is a college project, so I’m not intending to profit from using the protected video, and besides, I only want to use a few seconds of footage anyway. So after debating with myself whether the FBI were going to come knocking on my door if I used the clips (and deciding that they weren’t), I set to work on disabling the Windows Media DRM.

After five minutes of Googling and a bit of fiddling around I had successfully removed the DRM. It was easy.

I used a tool called FairUse4WM (I wont provide a link, you know where Google is). This tool has massive implications for music services such as Napster and Yahoo! Music which offer a paid for subscription to unlimited music protected by Windows Media DRM. FairUse4WM effectively allows users to subscribe for 1 month, download to their hearts content, unlock the music, cancel their subscription, and live happily ever after with hour upon hour of stolen music.

As it happens, Microsoft have updated Windows Media Player 11 to plug any defenses which FairUse4WM breached. This means if you diligently update Windows, then FairUse4WM probably wont work. However, do a couple more minutes of searching and you will discover that there are ways of rolling back Windows Media Player. And besides, you can bet your bottom dollar that someone is out there now sweating in a darkened room as they attempt to crack the latest updates. It’s only a matter of time.

Steve Jobs with iPod non

All this goes to highlight the rather ridiculous game of cat and mouse that DRM has become. Last month Steve Jobs (CEO, Apple) referred to this game of cat and mouse when he published his Thoughts on Music. He outlined some alternative options to the current DRM system, including a DRM-free world where users can buy digital music from any online supplier and play it back on any portable music player. Commentators were quick to herald the beginning of the end for DRM, although look a little closer and Jobs’ motives for this announcement become murky.

The fact is that DRM has benefited Apple immensely. All iPod users are locked to iTunes as it is a prerequisite for transferring music to their iPod. Then, when these innocent iPod users start downloading music from iTunes, they become locked to the iPod because Apple’s DRM prevents the music being played on any other device. This is known in economics as vendor lock-in.

It is this situation that has undoubtedly helped the iPod become the top selling personal music player by a long distance. It is also this situation that has got Apple into hot water with European consumer groups for operating anti-competitively.

So does Jobs really believe in a future without DRM? Well, after the dust has settled from when he made the announcement, many (myself included) see his comments as nothing more than a clever PR move, designed to shift criticism of DRM from Apple to the major record labels. Many actually see his comments as the height of hypocrisy.

One thing is certain though, DRM isn’t going away anywhere soon. And whilst that someone in that darkened room continues to fervently hack away (which they will do), then for the reasonably tech-savvy DRM will remain a five minute job to remove. For the masses however, DRM is just a pain in the arse and another reason to continue buying CDs. And there, ladies and gentlemen, is the crux of this matter, and the true driver behind DRM.