30 Days of DRM – Day 06: Interoperability (Public Protection and Markets)

The interoperability problems associated with DRM have emerged over the past year as a focal point for debate with legislators and regulators in Europe beginning to intervene to address the issue.  The interoperability concerns arise from the fact that DRM'd content is frequently linked to specific hardware, leaving consumers unable to transfer the content from device to device.  For example, Apple iTunes uses a technology known as FairPlay to limit consumers ability to transfer songs that they have purchased to devices other than the iPod (as well as limit the number of copies and uses of the download), while services such as Napster and Puretracks use a Microsoft-supported DRM system that will not play on an iPod.  The end result is lock-in (literally) as consumers find themselves tied to a specific hardware device with the cost of switching now including the loss of their investment in new content.

Even the industry has begun to acknowledge the problem.  It was much discussed at an OECD conference in Rome earlier this year and Yahoo! has expressed its frustration with DRM.  Of course, those rejecting the DRM-based approach are finding great success – witness the Canadian music industry, where the large independent labels have left CRIA and largely avoid DRM, as well as eMusic, which offers "clean" MP3s, and has grown into the world's second biggest music download service.

Regulators have also become involved as concern over consumer fairness and marketplace competition mounts.  France toyed with legislation earlier this year that would have mandated that Apple reveal technological specifications to its competitors so that they could design compatible devices.  As a result, songs bought on iTunes would theoretically play on any digital music device.  Officials in several Scandanavian countries are now examining similar concerns.

It is important to understand that this interoperability problem is not solely a product of DRM.  Rather, it is the result of combining DRM with anti-circumvention legislation.

DRM on its own raises compatibility issues but it is a safe bet that competitors will be able to patch the problem by building tools that allow for compatibility.  Once anti-circumvention legislation is added to the mix, the competitors are effectively locked out, since developing the compatibility tools will likely break the law.

How to address the problem?  One possibility is the early French approach of mandating disclosures of technological specifications.  That might help address the issue, but arguably interjects government regulation too far into mandating technical requirements.  A better approach would be to establish a legal framework that guarantees the "freedom to tinker" such that competitors would be free to develop interoperable products without fear of legal liability.  This would require an explicit exception to the anti-circumvention rules and conceivably a provision within the Competition Act to bolster that freedom by preventing abusive practices designed to establish unfair hurdles to interoperability.


  1. I don’t think there needs to be regulation of drm.
    That is, there shouldn’t be legislation enforcing the use of drm, making exceptions to drm schemes, or preventing people from producing tools to break drm schemes. The last, I think is important.

    That would give consumers choice: If labels sell things with DRM, and consumers find DRM makes those products less useful, Consumers don’t have to buy them. If a competitor offers a product without DRM, then consumers will buy that product.

    There doesn’t need to be legal protection against “unauthorized” decryption of failed DRM schemes like CSS. If content companies cannot invent a DRM scheme that is both acceptable to consumers, but that also cannot be easily broken, that is their is purely their intellectual failure. Laws against decrypting DRM are an offensive limitation on free speech and intellectual enquiry which have no good analogue in law that I’m aware of. If patent laws or such get in the way, then there needs to be a clarification of the law of patents on algorithms to prevent monopolizing a DRM scheme with patents alone.

    I don’t think there needs to be additional protections, for forcing companies providing DRM content to make schemes available to certain users to circumvent DRM, or for forcing companies alter the functinality of their DRM schemes to allow consumers to make particular uses (eg interoperability) of the content they purchase. If consumers wish to purchase DRM content that they know they can’t decrypt and make use of, or purchase devices which produce content they can’t make full use of because it is DRMed (for example, certain proprietary image formats for digital cameras), then too bad for them. What’s forcing consumers to patronize this market if they actually don’t want it? What’s preventing a competitor from serving an alternative DRM-free market explicitly, or from providing tools to break that DRM, if it can be broken?

  2. Russell McOrmond says:

    Separating TPMs on content from TPMs on
    I find that many of these conversations about “DRM” are confusing as they mix together things which have little in common, and don’t adequately differentiate TPMs applied to content (and what is possible) from TPMs applied to devices (and what is possible).

    I’ve tried to author an article to clarify some of these issues which might be helpful.

    Protecting property rights in a digital world
    [ link ]

    While I believe it should be lawful for a copyright holder to place technical measures on their own content, I believe it should be unlawful for a copyright holder and/or a device manufacturer to place a TPM on hardware without the clear informed consent of the owner of that hardware.

    Once that separation is made I believe people will realize that the controversy is not with TPMs applied to content (which can’t do much), but TPMs applied to hardware by non-owners and/or the tie between the ability to access content and infected hardware.

  3. Matt
    Since DRM are nothing but a “door lock” to secure digital content, then we can push the analogy further.

    It is not illegal to make a double of a door key. Nor is it illegal to build a key that could open most doors (decripting a DRM).

    What is illegal is to use that key and enter somebody’s house without permission (infringing copyrighted material).

    So as it is right now, the laws are fine. It’s illegal to copy digital work for certain purposes, like reselling for a profit. Companies can protect their content with DRM if they choose so, and will have to face the wrath of consumers, but i don’t see why the law should protect them more than it protects my own house.

  4. Rob Ullhorn says:

    Well put Matt

    You make the point quite eloquently. I’ve never understood how people never seem to be able to figure out such a simple concept as copyright.

    When I buy a copyrighted work, that particular copy is mine. I can do whatever I like with it. If I want to print out and wallpaper my house with every single frame from Superman, I’m allowed to do that. If I want to remix all my CD’s and play them backwards I’m entitled to do that. I can do whatever I like with my copy of that copyrighted work.

    What I am not entitled to do is share my copy or what I did with my copy of the copyrighted work with anyone else.

    Yes, it really is that simple.

    Companies don’t need DRM at all to enforce this simple facet of copyright law. If people are sharing copyrighted works without permission of the original author/companies, then the authors/companies need to start enforcing the that law.

    The problem is that in the digital age it takes a fair bit of time and costs money to do it, not to mention having to satisfy all those pesky privacy laws you need to get around in order to prove who exactly is sharing online. Even then you can’t be 100% certain you have the correct person. Did I mention the ill will treating customers as criminals generates among the public.

    Which is why companies want DRM. It is simply much more expedient and simpler to purchase, um…. I mean “lobby” for a law that turns the average citizen who is currently breaking no law into a criminal rather than enforce the current laws that they already have.

    Not to mention locking into their preferred pay-per-play subscription model.


  5. Why is Fairplay a problem?
    I don’t understand why people hold up Fairplay DRM and iTunes as a locked-in closed system.

    You can burn the song to a standard audio CD with iTunes and then use it where-ever you like. The Fairplay license may prohibit this(?), but the software system certainly doesn’t.

  6. Anonymous
    Establishing a legal framework that guarantees the “freedom to tinker” such that competitors would be free to develop interoperable products without fear of legal liability is an intriguing idea. I think it will only work if the competitor that builds the interoperable product continues to honour the rights information that is carried with the content. If it does not then the trusted environment that the DRM orginally tries to establish will be broken and thus the DRM will be undermined. No DRM system proponent (e.g. Apple) will commit to an undermining of the trust that the DRM system tries to establish.