April 25, 2013

DRM at the W3C? Not such a Bad Idea.

The Unpopular Position

Recently, another fear-mongering, not-quite-correct anti-DRM article was posted over at FreeCulture.com. Entitled “Don’t let the myths fool you: the W3C’s plan for DRM in HTML5 is a betrayal to all Web users”, it is another attempt to “Rally-the-Troops” against Premium Content Protection (also referred to as DRM), the W3C’s Encrypted Media Extensions (which is NOT DRM), and a general tsk-tsking and call to action to pressure the W3C to abandon this effort, all in the name of “The Open Web”. While passionate and earnest, the author seems to be operating on a number of fallacious assumptions that need to examined in closer detail.

I’ve pretty much had it with the amount of FUD being propagated around the web on this topic, and so against my better judgment (OK, maybe not), I am about to set out and articulate the other perspective.

Fallacy #1

DRM is not about protecting copyright. That is a straw man. DRM is about limiting the functionality of devices and selling features back in the form of services.
Public perception of DRM is that it exists to prevent unauthorized copying, but that it’s inherently ineffective because it’s impossible to simultaneously show someone something and keep it hidden from them. This is a grave mistake that hides the actual function of DRM, which is overwhelmingly successful: to prevent completely legal uses of technology so that media companies can charge over and over for services which provide functionality that should never have been removed to begin with.

Movie Poster: 2012′s The Dark Knight Rises

Wait, what? Since when is watching a movie or television program over the web a “service”? The “service” you are purchasing is a fee-for-use or subscription model for the web-based delivery of that content, not for the ownership of that content. The movie “The Dark Knight Rises” (for example) is not technology, its entertainment. The specific “functionality” of that movie is to entertain you, not do the dishes or balance your bank account.

What many do not fully understand (and what many anti-DRM advocates fail – or refuse – to admit) is exactly what you are “purchasing” when you buy Premium (Entertainment) Content: you aren’t buying “the movie”, but rather a license (contract) to view, that has specific restrictions and grants. (That second link, ironically, is the License for getting Hulu on the (Calculate) Linux platform: go ahead, read it).

You might not like that, you might think that is unreasonable, unfair, immoral, whatever. None-the-less, it is perfectly legitimate and legal: it is a contract offer, and you have the choice to enter into that contract, or not do so. You don’t like the terms of the contract? Don’t put your money down – it really is that simple. Vote with your feet; don’t try to use the W3C as a bully stick to try and make Big Media change their business model – it won’t work, and it only ultimately makes the W3C less relevant in ensuring the “openest” web we can hope for: maybe not 100% “Open”, but a far site more so than if Apple and Disney Studios created a closed alternative.

The Open Web Platform is NOT Open Source

Movies (and other Premium Content) are NOT Open Source software. I like FOSS, and I support the principles of FOSS, and I use FOSS tools, but there is a world of difference between a collective of engineers with shared goals consciously choosing to collaborate and create shared tools (that can then be used for alternative monitization schemes), and private investors supporting the creation of entertainment. Lumping the two together however is unrealistic, inaccurate, and simply wrong.

Returning to the movie “Dark Knight Rises”: it is estimated that the film cost approximately $250 million to make. That is a non-trivial investment into a movie that, when being made, may or may not have been a box-office success. Seven out of ten movies lose money, and that’s after worldwide box office, DVD sales, internet downloads, and cable & television sales are counted.

The investors behind this Premium Content are gambling that they will get, at the very least, a minor return on their investments, and why not? This is how business works, and without those investors, no new Premium Content will be created. “Hollywood” is not a benevolent entertainment creator, they are a business, and business is all about making something and selling it for a profit. Why shouldn’t they seek to ensure that the value of what they have invested-in retains its value and monitization stream?

That might not be what you want to hear, but that is the reality of business, and business is what drives the internet today: plain and simple.

Fallacy #2

The Web doesn’t need big media; big media needs the Web.

Correct, however, the author is missing 2 key points: 1) the web WANTS “big media” Premium Content, and 2) the web is not the W3C.

In fact, there are multiple and numerous standards bodies that create numerous standards that affect the web. A clear and obvious example is JavaScript (a.k.a ECMAScript or TC39), which is NOT a W3C standard, but in fact created at and by Ecma International. Other standards bodies include (but are not limited to) the ISO (International Standards Organization) and IETF (The Internet Engineering Task Force). The naive assumption that getting ‘Content Protection standardization on the web’ halted simply by chasing after the W3C clearly illustrates how little many know about what the “Open Web” actually means. For truth, it also means that these other Standards bodies can create and share back their standards to the web, where others can build upon and use these standards. Thus, the correct statement is more like “Big Media doesn’t need the W3C, but the W3C is a good place for Big Media to go”.

The “Wall of Patents” proudly on display at PayPal

Why? Simple – the patent policy that is applied to all W3C Recommendations are, to the best of ability and knowledge, patent and royalty free. Anyone can use them, without fear that down the road patent trolls won’t come along and claim “prior art” and sue the pants off of you. And of course, we all know that that’s not a problem, right?

By having Big Media work inside of the W3C, where the dialog and work is performed in the open, and where anyone can follow, participate or contribute, we have a situation where numerous stake-holders can not only be involved in the decisions and implementation, but that W3C Process Policy has provisions that ensure that all perspectives at least have an opportunity to be heard. (For example, at the W3C Face-to-Face meetings this week in San Jose, members of the HTML5 Accessibility Task Force had the opportunity to discuss with the engineers behind EME the possible accessibility concerns around Content Protection: where else but at the W3C would an opportunity like that even exist?)

The alternative of course is for Big Media to go to a closed Standards Body (perhaps SMPTE, or create a new consortium), develop their (patented) technology solution behind closed doors, and return to “the Open Web” and use the very same plumbing that W3C technologies use.

But,” you might say, “it also has to work in the browser“, and again you would be correct.

But while it would be more costly and inconvenient for “Big Media” to go off and build a “special” browser that implemented their non-W3C Content Protection solution, they certainly could do that (maybe they would further fork Blink {wry smile}), and, once again, use the “Open Web”‘s plumbing for the transport layer of their content to their browser. In contrast, if the technology for transmission of Encrypted Media did work in all browsers (and those browsers could use that technology secure in the knowledge that the technology they are using is patent and royalty free), then users can still use the browser of their choice to consume the encrypted media.

I get that DRM is unpopular…

…and that Content Protection schemes in the past have had some user-experience pain associated to it. Trust me, those Premium Content owners want their client’s Customer Experience to be a good one, and if there are creaks and groans in what we have today, all the more reason to work – together – to improve that experience. The W3C could be a great place to do that work for the reasons I’ve outlined above.

From my perspective we have two choices: support the “open” development of a Content Protection scheme, and work with those developers to get it right this time, or continue to believe that somehow signing a petition and sending it to the W3C will stop this work in its tracks. I know enough about how the W3C works on the inside to suggest that the latter might make you feel good, but it will have no effect on the outcome. I suggest then that you start thinking about how you can contribute towards making this legitimate business requirement a workable deliverable. Ultimately we will be the bigger winners that way.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 DRM at the W3C? Not such a Bad Idea. by John Foliot is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Posted by John

I am a 16 year veteran of Web Accessibility, living and working in Austin, Texas. Currently Principal Accessibility Strategist at Deque Systems Inc., I have previously held accessibility related positions at JPMorgan Chase and Stanford University. I am also actively involved with the W3C - the international internet standards body - where I attempt to stir the pot, fight hard for accessibility on the web, and am currently co-chairing a subcommittee on the accessibility of media elements in HTML5.

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