September 08, 2003

A Year Ago Today: Cory Doctorow on DRM-in-Practice

Cory Doctorow on DRM-in-Practice: Archive Entry From Brad DeLong's Webjournal

The principal serious objection to tight control over content by IP rights holders is made by those who argue that by so doing they destroy most of the utility--and most of the consumer surplus--of the technology. Here Cory Doctorow makes this argument, with details, as applied to Toshiba's new clone of Apple's iPod:

Boing Boing: A Directory of Wonderful Things: ...Toshiba's new digital music player shows us more evidence that (consumer electronics) (digital rights management) = a**. The DRM vendor's mantra is, "DRM needs to be invisible, it needs to get out of the way of legitimate activity and only crop up when the user tries to infringe on copyright." A good sentiment, but it's more wishful thinking than design specification, as the new Tosh Mobilphone demonstrates.

The Mobilphone is an iPod clone with a 5GB drive and a USB 2.0 interface. The iPod, of course, rules for a number of reasons, but one of the biggies is that by using FireWire to synch MP3s with your computer, the iPod is capable of filling itself up with music in a matter of minutes. USB 2.0 leapfrogs FireWire and delivers even greater speed. So far, so good.

But for "security" reasons, the Mobilphone will only play music that has been encrypted with Toshiba's proprietary cipher. The encryption happens when you use Toshiba's software to synch your Mobilphone with your PC. Now, leave aside for the moment that this means that without (illegally, under the DMCA) reverse-engineering the crypto, no vendor except Toshiba and its licensees will ever be able to deliver a client for the Mobilphone (so forget about Linux, BSD, Mac or device-to-device apps), and that if Toshiba's fly-sized attention-span wanders away from the device, you'll be stuck holding a 5GB boat anchor.

Yes, leave that aside, because there's an immediate, non-hypothetical reason that Toshiba's brainless crypto-scheme is a stupid, anti-customer idea. The encryption of your music happens on the fly, as you synch your Mobilphone with your PC. That encryption process is CPU-intensive, so much so that it slows the USB 2.0 interface to USB 1.1 speeds. In other words, despite the presence of some truly azz-kicking, bleeding-edge interface technology, the Mobilphone synchs no faster than it would have if it had a poky old 1.1 bus.

Practically speaking this means that synching ten albums takes eight minutes instead of fifty seconds. I have an iTunes "Advanced Playlist" that grabs 5GB of random, high-rated music from my pool of 20GB of MP3s and synchs them every time I plug my iPod in -- it takes a minute or two. With the Mobilphone, it'd take all afternoon. Rip. Mix. Wait. Link Discuss (via Gizmodo)

Posted by DeLong at September 8, 2003 12:01 AM | TrackBack


I believe that Hal Varian once pointed out that, in practice, there's not much difference between DRM and censorship. In the end, some feature of the device has to monitor each and every transaction, and determine if it's allowed.

Posted by: Barry on September 8, 2003 06:50 AM

I believe that Hal Varian once pointed out that, in practice, there's not much difference between DRM and censorship. In the end, some feature of the device has to monitor each and every transaction, and determine if it's allowed.

Posted by: Barry on September 8, 2003 06:55 AM

And for the DRM system to work well, it has to work on the 'only if allowed' system. If it works on 'allow if not forbidden', that will only delay circumvention. For example, a system which checks for copyright tags in a music file, and allows playing the file unless (tags exist and permission license not on that device) would only stop music sharing until somebody posts copies with the tags stripped.

Posted by: Barry on September 8, 2003 07:11 AM

And don't forget-- this is music from -your own music collection- that is being encrypted. AARRRGGGGHHH.

Posted by: Matt on September 8, 2003 07:37 AM

I had some difficulty finding the device on Gizmodo, but I am assuming that a mobilphone is in someways, a phone. How can that be a clone of an iPod?

Posted by: theCoach on September 8, 2003 08:42 AM

Did anyone ever talk about "intellectual property" at all before Disney, Gates, and the pharmaceutical companies came along? There were fights about recorded music on the radio and book pirating, but as long as the victims of piracy were just writers and musicians, this was a tiny issue.

Then Gates came up with his complicated ways of squeezing the maximum money out of an easily-copiable product -- licensing, initial-and-perpetual-obsolescence, rewriting of patent and copyright law, and a big mean legal department. And at the same time he tried to make his product the default for everyone in the world, so you actually can get it free (apparently you can't buy a Windows-free computer.) But he also destroys anyone who has a patent (intellectual property) he wants by reverse engineering and deep-pockets legal tactics.

Likewise for Disney, big music, and pharmaceutical companies (who are patenting traditional uses of wild plants and can even patent someone's own cells and DNA against their will).

And then you read the stories who have lost control of their own music and are flat broke. Not just Delta blues singers, but people like Billy Joel, of all people. (A Jew, for Christsake! -- if I may say so.)

So anyway, law aside, economics aside, I have a lot of trouble caring at all about intellectual property. I realize that this is a complicated question and that my gut feeling is not a good guide, etc., but ......

Posted by: zizka on September 8, 2003 06:20 PM

Of course IP has become a gigantic boondoggle. The interests of some very greedy corporations, quite capable of buying legislation to order, reign unchecked.

But in the case of the Toshiba device I reckon the market will take care of it - only an idiot will buy it in preference to the iPod now, and only a true cretin will prefer it to the coming wave of similar devices that will get it right.

Posted by: derrida derider on September 9, 2003 05:39 AM
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