Why did it take nearly a decade for portable video to move beyond compact DVD players? Why can we do so much more with music CDs and their successors than with DVDs and theirs? I argue the difference is baked-in DRM and its legal side-effects.
Copyright scholars have been talking for a long time about the DMCA and its impact on fair use — if your media is locked by DRM, you may be forbidden technologically from legally permissible criticism or transformation. (See the extraordinary lengths to which the MPAA goes in trying to say this isn’t so.) This is a serious problem, but it has bothered me that the focus has often eclipsed another DRM-induced problem, the foreclosure of open innovation and development around digital media.
In a draft paper, The Imperfect is the Enemy of the Good: Anticircumvention Versus Open Innovation, that will appear in the Berkeley Technology Law Journal this spring, I argue that conflicts with open development are a serious architectural flaw in anticircumvention law and policy. As we recognize the value of disruptive and user-driven innovation, we should shape the law to help, not hinder, this decentralized development.
Under an anticircumvention regime, the producers of media content can authorize or deny authorization to technologies for playing their works. Open source technologies and their developers cannot logically be authorized. “Open-source DRM” is a contradiction in terms, for open source encourages user modification (and copyleft requires its availability), while DRM compels “robustness” against those same user modifications. Since DRM aims to control use of content while permitting the user to see or hear it, it can be implemented only in software or hardware that is able to override its user’s wishes—and can’t be hacked to do otherwise. For a DRM implementation to make any sense, therefore, its barriers against user modification of the rights management must be at least as strong as those against user access to its protected content.
I characterize a “DRM imperative” and explore the technical incompatibilities between regulation by code and exploration of code. We see DRM centralizing development and forcing the black-boxing of complementary media technology, in a widening zone as it mandates that protected media be played only on compliant devices, that those may output media content only to other compliant devices, etc. The home media network is thus progressively closed to open-source development.
Foreclosing open development costs us technically, economically, and socially. We lose predicted technological improvements, those of user-innovators (von Hippel) or disruptive technologies (Christensen) from outside the incumbent-authorized set, that could offer new options for content creators and audiences (such as better playback, library, mixing, and commerce options). We lose social and cultural opportunities for commons-based peer production.