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Control vs. usability, what is the future of DRM?


By Scott Bradner


Digital rights management (DRM) is a chimera that content owners use to pretend that their content is not digital.  As a technology, DRM has had an almost unblemished record of failure and as a business model the record has been just about as bad.  About the only person who has made somewhat of a success with DRM has called for its abandonment, at least in a major area of current use.  But this reality has not diminished the ardor the content owners have for the idea.  Given all of the above just what is the future of DRM in the Internet?


As he does from time to time, University of Minnesota researcher Andrew Odlyzko has just published a pithy little paper (actually an extended abstract) ( that wonderfully summarizes the state and probable future of DRM in the Internet context. 


Andrew politely says that "the record of DRM so far is not too inspiring."  That is far kinder than I feel.  As far as I know every major DRM system used where the customer has possession of the computer on which it is used has been broken. Organizations such as the Trusted Computing Group ( have been working diligently for years on ways to cripple your computer to protect (among other things) DRM systems.  That technology, while installed in many modern personal computers, does not seem to have gone that far - thank goodness (or fear or something).  The tradeoff of having a computer that refused to, for example, run applications I want to seems to me to be too big a price to pay to prolong DRM dreams.  (See also Richard Stallman's take -


Andrew does a good job in a few words of the attraction that content owners have for the idea of DRM.  They think they can use it to control your usage of content you buy and maybe even discriminate based on what they think you might be willing to pay.  He notes that there is often a tradeoff between the use of DRM and usability.  Apple has shown that it is possible to produce a useable DRM system mostly by making sure that most of the things people would want to do were permitted by the DRM such as making copies and using it on multiple devices and computers.  Most of the other systems get this wrong.  But even Apple would rather do without DRM.  (See DRM-less music? Let consumers decide


Andrew notes in passing that the content industry has never been all that forward thinking about new technology.  They have fought every technological advance in the area of content reproduction.  (See Never met a tech they didn't hate -


Andrew does conclude that DRM will not go away - the content owners just think there is far too much money at stake  - it may be a lot to tem but its not a big part of the Internet economy. (See El Dorado on the 'Net His last point in the article is that DRM is too important to the content owners to go away but that "usability will continue to matter much more than tight control."


In the end, the title Andrew chose for his article says it all: "Digital rights management: desirable, inevitable, and almost irrelevant." 


disclaimer: For Harvard, 2 of those 3 is not bad, but the above review is mine not the university's.