Pandora’s Box, Jurassic Park, and DRM

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No matter how universal a truth the curiosity which underlies the story of Pandora’s Box might be, it still amazes us how many times it’s brought up in relation to new technology. From the real life Manhattan Project to the fictional Jurassic Park, the dangers of new and powerful technologies are often evoked using the Pandora myth. Will our curiosity get the better of us?

Against the backdrop of scientific developments like the splitting of the atom, the potential impacts of a technology like Digital Rights Management (DRM) may seem trivial. But if our focus is instead on the day to day impact of a technology on consumers and enterprises alike, it’s difficult to find one with more potential implications than DRM. You disagree? Then talk to Intuit about the lawsuit brought by purchasers of its TurboTax application, which contained DRM software that many consumers weren’t aware of. Or BMG, which has held off on implementing copy protected CDs in the US for fear of a consumer backlash.

Make no mistake – there is a war for digital rights being waged right now, by consumers, consumer advocacy groups, content owners, software providers, and others. Ultimately it’s a battle for control over content – be it music, movies, or a patient’s MRI. It’s a battle that can have an enormous price tag associated with it; although they eventually settled for far less, students at Michigan Tech, Princeton, and RPI were recently sued for about a $150,000 per song. Based on the number of files he made available, the student from Michigan Tech in particular was – at the tender age of 21 – liable for a theoretical $98 billion in damages. Wonder what the student loan people would have said about that?

In this space, however, we’d like to highlight two announcements made in recent weeks that we feel have significant bearing on DRM:

  • iTunes Music Store: with 1 million tunes sold in the first week alone, many are hailing Apple’s newest consumer creation as the ideal compromise between DRM and consumer rights. Indeed, Apple’s relatively consumer friendly approach – you can burn the music to CD’s, songs can be bought individually for $ .99 rather than a monthly subscription fee, and can be accessed from 3 computers as well as iPod devices – has won Apple a great many converts. RedMonk approves of this approach wholeheartedly, and were we an Apple enterprise we’d likely be participating (note to Apple – hurry up on the Windows version).

    RedMonk’s concern however is that sooner or later someone will get around to cracking the AAC format the online store uses, and if this hack becomes widespread Apple’s ability to attract new content – and thus keep the store viable – will be challenged. For now though, Apple has provided a rare bright spot in the often heated battle between consumers and the RIAA. Thumbs up for Apple.

  • NGSCB: Formerly known as Palladium, the Next-Generation Secure Computing Base (quite a mouthful, is it not?) which was detailed at Microsoft’s recent WinHEC technical conference, attempts to secure individual servers and PCs in ways not previously possible. While there are number of important technologies introduced in NGSCB, RedMonk believes that potentially the biggest game changer will be a concept called attestation. Attestation works by taking a snapshot of certain characteristics, which allows a machine to be uniquely identified. It can tell my desktop say, from the CEO’s desktop.

    It’s easy to see the value of such a technology in a corporate environment – which incidentally is the initial focus of NGSCB – because a user can send an email to the CEO that can only be read on the CEO’s machine, even if that email is forwarded to other people. On the other hand, the wider implications of the technology raise serious flags about privacy and anonymity.

    The point here is not to be alarmist, nor point fingers at Microsoft. The sky is not falling. Microsoft has been very clear that the principle use cases behind NGSCB are in enterprise rights management – to make sure that confidential emails, or sensitive corporate documents, for example, are protected wherever they might roam. It will be quite some time before this technology comes near Joe Consumer.

    We’d still like to see more thinking around how the technology might evolve. If the current legislative trend around copyrights continues, and copyright holders are further empowered, it’s not hard to see consumers’ fair use rights being trampled in the process. The only advantage consumers have right now is the fact that the levels of control that bodies like the RIAA or the MPAA desire are not technically achievable. But if NGSCB was available right now, strict content locks would be. So while it’s more of a horizon event than anything else, there are some DRM issues looming large in the months and years to come.

In any event, DRM is becoming a more and more important topic for enterprises and consumers alike, as they each struggle to adapt to a swiftly evolving digital landscape. The ability to control digital content once it has left home will determine how some businesses evolve, some thrive, and some wither and die. Pandora’s box has been opened, and for all of the ‘hostile’ forces unleashed like file-sharing, there are those who are trying to not only close the box back up, but nail it shut with a combination of technology and legislation.

So the question in all of this is how closely do we follow the myth? Is there in any hope left in that box? Maybe, if compromises like Apple’s can find a paying market. But such compromises are a necessity to content owners at the moment because of technical limitations; if these limitations are removed will they still be willing to compromise? We’re worried that the answer is no.

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