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The Near Future of Digital Rights Management

by Daniel H. Steinberg
10/03/2002

Apple has always been committed to helping individuals creatively express themselves. From desktop publishing to thinking different to iPhoto and iMovie, Apple has encouraged and enabled free expression.

With increasing pressure from the entertainment industry, many other computer, device, and chip companies are agreeing to restrict the abilities of their technologies to prevent what Hollywood views as a potential threat to its livelihood. At the O'Reilly Mac OS X Conference a panel discussed the near future of Digital Rights Management.

What If ...

What if there was a law that said you couldn't browse the Internet with any device that could be attached to a printer? You'd probably ignore the law and recognize it as stupid and unenforceable. But maybe content providers want to make sure they get page hits from people reading their material. If you print out this article and give it to a friend then O'Reilly wouldn't be able to track it and get credit for that additional reader. Now, O'Reilly doesn't care. In two presentations Tuesday at O'Reilly's Mac OS X Conference, company founder and president, Tim O'Reilly said, "Obscurity is a far greater threat to anyone in the content industry than piracy."

But imagine that there are some publishers who do care and their solution is to pass laws that regulate technology. Imagine a law that says it's illegal to produce a device that can both display content in a browser and connect to a printer. Now there's someone concrete to sue if a law is broken. Imagine the law says more than that. Suppose it said that your device has to check in with some central authority on a regular basis. This is so that if a device can browse the Internet and later finds a way to connect it to a printer then the Web browsing capabilities can be disabled by this central authority. You would be buying a device because it can perform certain functions--but later these functions can be disabled by someone else without your permission.

Related Reading

iMovie 2: The Missing Manual
By David Pogue

These political facts that author Cory Doctorow and others have been explaining are far stranger than the science fiction in the books that Cory writes. The entertainment industry is pressuring Congress for laws that will restrict what the technology companies can sell to you. These efforts aren't new, but this time the lack of opposition from the technology companies is telling.

The Internet is Hollywood on Steroids

San Jose Mercury News technology columnist Dan Gillmor moderated a panel discussion titled Mac OS X, a Digital Rights Management Operating System. Gillmor opened up the panel by stressing that the Internet is a medium that allows you to both read and write. When you watch television, your input is restricted to choosing the channel and setting the volume. The problem, according to Gillmor, is that Hollywood sees the Internet as Hollywood on steroids, where the interaction might consist of a button marked "Buy This". Tim O'Reilly chimed in that they actually would like to enable a mouse that you could use to select and buy any product.

Currently Apple looks at and understands a digital lifestyle while other chip makers have signed on to Palladium--a technology that can restrict fair use. Apple supports fair use. Gillmor asked, "Can Apple hold out? Can this last, where a company can act in the interest of the customer."

Before turning to the panelists for their views, Gillmor pointed out that "It is not unreasonable for the entertainment industry to be paranoid. They're seeing the end of a business model that has been really good to them. If no one has to pay for anything that's digital, why should anyone pay for anything that's digital?"

Turning the PC into a Trusted Digital Appliance

J. D. Lasica, senior editor for the Online Journalism Review, is working on a book about the clampdown on digital rights. He sees a lot of bad news on the horizon. Internet users are not just passive consumers. We are producers and distributors through online Weblogs, movies, and photo albums. He worries that some of these creative freedoms are coming to an end. So far Apple has been in the forefront of creative freedom and continues to enable creative expression with the suite of iApps (iPhoto, iMovie, iTunes, and iDVD). But, Lasica explains, "Apple is nervous because any opposition to content control is frowned upon in the halls of Congress. The film industry has the attention of the Congress and has thrown 60 million dollars at it."

Lasica had just returned from the Digital Hollywood conference where the vice president of the MPAA asked, "How do we turn a personal computer into a trusted digital appliance." Lasica agrees that piracy is wrong but argues that there are different ideas of what constitutes piracy. He warns that the entertainment industry wants to reengineer operating systems to prevent what it sees as a copyright violation. Lasica ended his presentation by urging audience members to become power users of digital convergence appliances. This creates more stakeholders in everyday users.

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