Orwellian DRM

On the morning of July 17, 2009, copies of certain books vanished from Kindles across the world. Monetary reparations were deposited into the respective Kindle owner’s account. In a stroke of pure irony, one of the deleted books was 1984 by George Orwell.

According to Amazon, these deletions were in response to a request by the rights holder. Amazon goes on to explain that the digital editions of both 1984 and Animal Farm were uploaded to Amazon’s store through a self-service portal. These were “unauthorized” versions of the ebooks and the party responsible for uploading them should not have done so.

In the end, the consumer loses, having been denied content they purchased. Sure, Amazon refunded the money they paid, but how many of those people were in the middle of reading those books? Or had them in the queue to read later? And what right does Amazon have to take back something they sold you? To borrow a really good example, that’s like Barnes and Nobles coming to your house and taking books off your shelves without permission. Does it make it OK if they leave a check on the table? Ok, sure, it’s your house rather than a device with just books, so how about if you had all of those books in a room, with separate access? Yeah.. you’d still feel violated, wouldn’t you..

What’s interesting is that this is the book industry doing this, and not the music or movie industry. With the insane tactics the RIAA has taken over the years, this seems to be right up their alley.. And the book industry has always had more openness, what with libraries, selling and swapping books, etc. But now there’s suddenly a big to-do about DRM and book rights. Interesting how times change.


DIVX : Return of the useless

In the late 1990’s, Circuit City partnered with an entertainment law firm, Ziffren, Brittenham, Branca and Fischer, to create a new type of video standard called DIVX.  DIVX was intended to be an alternative to movie rentals.  In short, you’d purchase a DIVX disc, reminiscent of a DVD, and you had the right to watch that disc as many times as you wanted within 48 hours of your first viewing.  After 48 hours passed, you had to pay an additional fee to continue viewing the disc.

This all sounds fine and dandy until you realize a few things.  This was a new format, incompatible with DVD players, which had come onto the market a few years earlier.  As a result, expensive DIVX or DIVX/DVD combo players had to be purchased.  These players had to be connected to a phone line so they could verify that the owner could play the disc.

The DIVX format quickly died out, leaving early adopters stranded with unusable discs and useless players.  Another fine example of the usefulness of DRM schemes.

Fast forward to 2008 and to Flexplay EntertainmentFlexplay is a new twist on the old DIVX format.  This time, however, consumers only have to pay once.  Sort of.

Flexplay is a fully compatible DVD disc, with a twist.  You purchase the disc, and after you open the package, you have 48 hours to watch it before it “self-destructs.”  According to How Stuff Works, a standard DVD is a dual-layer disc that starts life as two separate pieces.  After the data is written on each piece, they are glued together using a resin adhesive.  The adhesive is clear, allowing laser light to pass through the first layer when necessary and read the second layer.

Flexplay works by replacing the resin adhesive with a special chemical compound that changes when exposed to oxygen.  Over time, the compound changes color and becomes opaque, rendering the DVD useless.  Once the disc has become opaque, it gets thrown away.

Before you begin fearing for the environment, Flexplay has a recycling program!  Flexplay offers two recycling options, local recycling and mail-in.  They claim that the discs are “no different in their environmental impact than regular DVDs” and that they comply with EPA standards.  Of course, they don’t point out that regular DVDs tend to be kept rather than thrown away.  The also offer this shining gem of wisdom, just before mentioning their mail-in recycling option:

“And of course, a Flexplay No-Return DVD Rental completely eliminates the energy usage and emissions associated with a return trip to the video rental store.”

It’s a good thing mailing the disc back to Flexplay is different than mailing a DVD back to NetFlix or Blockbuster…  Oh..  wait..

And this brings up another good point.  The purpose of Flexplay is to offer an alternative to rental services.  With both Netflix and Blockbuster, I can request the movies I want online, pay a minimal fee, and have them delivered directly to my house.  At worst, I may drive to a local rental store and rent a movie, similar to that of driving to a store selling Flexplay discs.  With Netflix and Blockbuster, I can keep those movies and watch them as many times as I want, way beyond the 48 hour period I would have for a Flexplay disc.  And, for the environmentally conscious, I then return the disc so it can be sent to another renter, removing the local landfill from the equation.

In short, this is yet another horrible idea.  The environmental impact this would have is astounding, if it ever took off.  Hopefully the public is smart enough to ignore it.

Getting screwed again by DRM

I’m definitely no fan of Digital Rights Management (DRM) in it’s current form.  It’s intrusive, prevents me form taking advantage of something I purchased, and is generally an all around nuisance.

Take, for instance, DRM “enhanced” music.  Most DRM licenses only allow you to listen to the music on authorized devices, and limits the number of devices you can put the music on.  Some even go as far as to limit the number of times you can listen to a specific track.  For some users this is ok, but what about those of us who change music players on a regular basis?  Now we have to be concerned about the type of DRM being used and whether or not it’s compatible with our new player.  It’s truly a nightmare.

There are even more issues with DRM, though.  Let’s take a look at modern games.  For consoles, DRM isn’t much of an issue yet.  Every console is the same, so there are no compatibility problems if you have to get a new console, or if you want to take your game to a friend’s house to play.  Downloaded content is a little trickier as it is often tied to the console it was downloaded on.  Unfortunately, in many situations, if the console fails and you get a replacement, you must re-purchase the downloaded content.  This isn’t always the case, but it does happen.

For PCs, however, the landscape is a little different.  DRM is used to prevent piracy of games.  Unfortunately, with the wide number of PC configurations, this can cause incompatibility problems.  But even beyond the compatibility issues, there are sometimes worse problems.

Take, for instance, SafeDisc DRM by Macrovision.  SafeDisc has been around for years and is often the cause of incompatibility problems with games.  SafeDisc requires a special driver to be loaded into Windows that allows the operating system to validate the authenticity of games that use the SafeDisc DRM scheme.  Apparently, Microsoft thought it would be useful to bundle a copy of the SafeDisc driver with Windows and has done so since Windows XP shipped about 6 years ago.

Recently, Elia Florio, from Symantec, discovered a vulnerability in the SafeDisc driver.  This vulnerability allows an attacker to escalate their privileges, ultimately allowing them full control of the operating system.  Thanks to Microsoft bundling this driver with Windows, even non-gamers are susceptible to this attack.

This highlights a major problem with DRM.  Ensuring security is a pretty tough, complex job.  The more complex the programming is, the harder it is to keep secure.  DRM is intentionally complex, intending to prevent theft.  As a result, it becomes very difficult to ensure that the code is secure.  This is a perfect example of that problem.  Unfortunately, it seems that this will only grow to be a larger problem as time goes on, unless we stamp out DRM.

Macromedia apparently has a fix for this problem on their website, and Microsoft is working on a solution as well.  Microsoft has refused to commit to a delivery date, though.  I would encourage you to update this driver as soon as possible, or, if you are a non-gamer, remove it completely.