Tags: drm

5

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Higher standards

Many people are—quite rightly, in my opinion—upset about the prospect of DRM landing in the W3C HTML specification at the behest of media companies like Netflix and the MPAA.

This would mean that a web browser would have to include support for the plugin-like architecture of Encrypted Media Extensions if they want to claim standards compliance.

A common rebuttal to any concerns about this is that any such concerns are hypocritical. After all, we’re quite happy to use other technologies—Apple TV, Silverlight, etc.—that have DRM baked in.

I think that this rebuttal is a crock of shit.

It is precisely because other technologies are locked down that it’s important to keep the web open.

I own an Apple TV. I use it to watch Netflix. So I’m using DRM-encumbered technologies all the time. But I will fight tooth and nail to keep DRM out of web browsers. That’s not hypocrisy. That’s a quarantine measure.

Stuart summarises the current situation nicely:

From what I’ve seen, this is a discussion of pragmatism: given that DRM exists and movies use it and people want movies, is it a good idea to integrate DRM movie playback more tightly with the web?

His conclusion perfectly encapsulates why I watch Netflix on my Apple TV and I don’t want DRM on the web:

The argument has been made that if the web doesn’t embrace this stuff, people won’t stop watching videos: they’ll just go somewhere other than the web to get them, and that is a correct argument. But what is the point in bringing people to the web to watch their videos, if in order to do so the web becomes platform-specific and unopen and balkanised?

As an addendum, I heard a similar “you’re being a hypocrite” argument when I raised security concerns about EME at the last TAG meetup in London:

I tried to steer things away from the ethical questions and back to the technical side of things by voicing my concerns with the security model of EME. Reading the excellent description by Henri, sentences like this should give you the heebie-jeebies:

Neither the browser nor the JavaScript program understand the bytes.

Alex told me that my phone already runs code that I cannot inspect and does things that I have no control over. So hey, what does it matter if my web browser does the same thing, right?

I’m reminded of something that Anne wrote four years ago when a vulnerability was discovered that affected Flash, Java, and web browsers:

We have higher standards for browsers.

Playing TAG

I was up in London yesterday to spend the day with the web developers of a Clearleft client, talking front-end architecture and strategies for implementing responsive design. ‘Twas a good day, although London always tires me out quite a bit.

On this occasion, I didn’t head straight back to Brighton. Instead I braved the subterranean challenges of the Tube to make my way across london to Google Campus, where a panel discussion was taking place. This was Meet The TAG.

TAG is the Technical Architecture Group at the W3C. It doesn’t work on any one particular spec. Instead, it’s a sort of meta-group to steer how standards get specified.

Gathered onstage yesterday evening were TAG members Anne van Kesteren, Tim Berners-Lee, Alex Russell, Yehuda Katz, and Daniel Appelquist (Henry Thompson and Sergey Konstantinov were also there, in the audience). Once we had all grabbed a (free!) beer and settled into our seats, Bruce kicked things off with an excellent question: in the intros, multiple TAG members mentioned their work as guiding emerging standards to make sure they matched the principles of the TAG …but what are those principles?

It seemed like a fairly straightforward question, but it prompted the first rabbit hole of the evening as Alex and Yehuda focussed in on the principle of “layering”—stacking technologies in a sensible way that provides the most power to web developers. It’s an important principle for sure, but it didn’t really answer Bruce’s question. I was tempted to raise my hand and reformulate Bruce’s question into three parts:

  1. Does the Technical Architecture Group have design principles?
  2. If so, what are there?
  3. And are they written down somewhere?

There’s a charter and that contains a mission statement, but that’s not the same as documenting design principles. There is an extensible web manifesto—that does document design principles—which contains the signatures of many (but not all) TAG members …so does that represent the views of the TAG? I’d like to get some clarification on that.

The extensible web manifesto does a good job of explaining the thinking behind projects like web components. It’s all about approaching the design of new browser APIs in a sensible (and extensible) way.

I mentioned that the TAG were a kind of meta-standards body, and in a way, what the extensible web manifesto—and examples like web components—are proposing is a meta-approach to how browsers implement new features. Instead of browser makers (in collaboration with standards bodies) creating new elements, UI widgets and APIs, developers will create new elements and UI widgets.

When Yehuda was describing this process, he compared it with the current situation. Currently, developers have to petition standards bodies begging them to implement some new kind of widget and eventually, if you’re lucky, browsers might implement it. At this point I interrupted to ask—somewhat tongue-in-cheek—”So if we get web components, what do we need standards bodies for?” Alex had an immediate response for that: standards bodies can look at what developers are creating, find the most common patterns, and implement them as new elements and widgets.

“I see,” I said. “So browsers and standards bodies will have a kind of ‘rough consensus’ based on …running code?”

“Yes!”, said Alex, laughing. “Jeremy Keith, ladies and gentlemen!”

So the idea with web components (and more broadly, the extensible web) is that developers will be able to create new elements with associated JavaScript functionality. Currently developers are creating new widgets using nothing but JavaScript. Ideally, web components will result in more declarative solutions and reduce our current reliance on JavaScript to do everything. I’m all for that.

But one thing slightly puzzled me. The idea of everyone creating whatever new elements they want isn’t a new one. That’s the whole idea behind XML (and by extension, XHTML) and yet the very same people who hated the idea of that kind of extensibility are the ones who are most eager about web components.

Playing devil’s advocate, I asked “How come the same people who hated RDF love web components?” (although what I really meant was RDFa—a means of extending HTML).

I got two answers. The first one was from Alex. Crucially, he said, a web component comes bundled with instructions on how it works. So it’s useful. That’s a big, big difference to the Tower of Babel scenario where everyone could just make up their own names for elements, but browsers have no idea what those names mean so effectively they’re meaningless.

That was the serious answer. The other answer I got was from Tim Berners-Lee. With a twinkle in his eye and an elbow in Alex’s ribs he said, “Well, these youngsters who weren’t around when we doing things with XML all want to do things with JSON now, which is a much cooler format because you can store number types in it. So that’s why they want to do everything in JavaScript.” Cheeky trickster!

Anyway, there was plenty of food for thought in the discussion of web components. This really is a radically new and different way of adding features to browsers. In theory, it shifts the balance of power much more to developers (who currently have to hack together everything using JavaScript). If it works, it will be A Good Thing and result in expanding HTML’s vocabulary with genuinely useful features. I fear there may be a rocky transition to this new way of thinking, and I worry about backwards compatibility, but I can’t help but admire the audacity of the plan.

The evening inevitably included a digression into the black hole of DRM. As always, the discussion got quite heated and I don’t think anybody was going to change their minds. I tried to steer things away from the ethical questions and back to the technical side of things by voicing my concerns with the security model of EME. Reading the excellent description by Henri, sentences like this should give you the heebie-jeebies:

Neither the browser nor the JavaScript program understand the bytes.

But the whole DRM discussion was, fortunately, curtailed by Anne who was ostensibly moderating the panel. Before it was though, Sir Tim made one final point. Because of the heat of the discussion, people were calling for us to separate the societal questions (around intellectual property and payment) from the technical ones (around encryption). But, Sir Tim pointed out, that separation isn’t really possible. Even something as simple as the hyperlink has political assumptions built in about the kind of society that would value being able to link resources together and share them around.

That’s an important point, well worth remembering: all software is political. That’s one of the reasons why I’d really appreciate an explicit documentation of design principles from the Technical Architecture Group.

Still, it was a very valuable event. Bruce has also written down his description of the evening. Many thanks to Dan and the rest of the TAG team for putting it together. I’m very glad I went along. As well as the panel discussion, it was really nice to chat to Paul and have the chance to congratulate Jeni in person on her appearance on her OBE.

Alas, I couldn’t stick around too long—I had to start making the long journey back to Brighton—so I said my goodbyes and exited. I didn’t have the opportunity to speak to Tim Berners-Lee directly, which is probably just as well: I’m sure I would’ve embarrassed myself by being a complete fanboy.

Have Kindle, will travel

I’m on my way from Florida to the Pacific Northwest. I don’t mean I’m about to set out. I mean, right now I’m in a plane flying across North America from Orlando to Seattle. This in-flight WiFi lark is quite wonderful.

There are some other technological inventions that make long journeys more bearable. There’s podcasts, of course. I’m catching up on all the audio I’ve been huffduffing and there’s some truly wonderful stuff in there.

Then there’s the Kindle. Having a choice of reading material packed into a small but comfortable to read device is extremely convenient. Mind you, for take off and landing, you’ll still need a nice slim non-electronic book, such as Erin’s marvelous The Elements of Content Strategy.

But for all of its convenience, some things about the Kindle really stick in my craw.

First of all, there’s the DRM. It’s utterly, utterly pointless and may even be infringing copyright by violating —remember kids, copyright isn’t just about protecting the rights of the content producer; it’s about the rights of the consumer too.

Then there’s the pricing. There are some books I’d really like to buy right now. I’ve got my credit in my hand, ready to hand my money over to Amazon, but then I see that the Kindle edition costs more than the paperback. Often, the Kindle edition is closer in price to the hardback. That’s just not right—or even if it is “right” for economic and legal reasons, it doesn’t intuitively feel right to me, the potential customer.

Kevin Kelly figures that electronic books will cost about a dollar within five years. Sounds about right to me. He also extrapolated that Kindles could be free by November.

The ludicrous asking price for DRM’d electrons is even more galling when the publishers clearly put no effort whatsoever into the production of the work. I really wanted to buy Surface Detail, the latest Culture novel from Iain M. Banks, but when I found reviews bemoaning the conversion quality, I put my credit card away:

I read the Kindle version, and the Kindle version has been lazily put together, I’m guessing from an earlier manuscript version. It has missing or half completed paragraphs. Very frustrating.

Jessica had already bought The City And The City by China Miéville—another book I really want to read—but she had to get a refund because the formatting was so awful.

Phil Gyford, speaking in the context of shoddily-printed physical books, sums up my frustration with the way publishers are treating Kindle editions:

I want to love books, but if the publisher treats them merely as interchangeable units, where the details don’t matter so long as the bits, the “content”, is conveyed as cheaply as possible, then we may be falling out of love.

Cennydd doesn’t even bother with the book-reading aspect of the Kindle, using it instead as an interface onto Instapaper.

The Kindle is a great lightweight reading device that’s particularly handy for travelling with—and the 3G version provides an almost miraculous permanent internet connection without any monthly contract—but the Kindle ecosystem, for all its Whispernet wonderment, is kind of nasty.

Now Amazon have decided that this ecosystem will not include third-party additions like Lendle. Even nastier.

Reading the street

Like many others, I was the grateful recipient of a Kindle this Christmas. I’m enjoying having such a lightweight reading device and I’m really enjoying the near-ubiquitous free connectivity that comes with the 3G version.

I can’t quite bring myself to go on a spending spree for overpriced DRM’d books with shoddy layout and character encoding, so I’ve been getting into the swing of things with the freely-available works of Cory Doctorow. I thoroughly enjoyed For The Win—actually, I read that one on my iPod Touch—and I just finished Makers on the Kindle.

The plot rambles somewhat but it’s still an entertaining near-future scenario of hardware hackers creating and destroying entire business models through the ever-decreasing cost and ever-increasing power of street-level technology.

Cracking open the case of a particularly convincing handset, he offers advice on identifying a fake: a hologram stuck on the phone’s battery is usually a good indication that the product is genuine. Two minutes later, Chipchase approaches another stall. The shopkeeper, a middle-aged woman, leans forward and offers an enormous roll of hologram stickers.

Chipchase, mouth agape, takes out the Canon 5D camera that he uses to catalogue almost everything he sees. “What are these for?” he asks, firing off a dozen photographs in quick succession. “You stick them on batteries to make them look real,” she says, with a shrug. Chipchase smiles, revelling in the discovery. “I love this!” he yelps in delight, and thanks the shopkeeper before heading off to examine the next stall.

That isn’t a passage from Makers. That’s from a Wired magazine article by Bobbie: a profile of Jan Chipchase and his predilection for ; counterfeit electronic goods on the streets of Shanghai …not unlike the Bambook Kindle clone.

Amazapple

Amazon is selling MP3s. Right now it’s US only (and I’ve got a sneaky US account on the side) but hopefully this will reach foreign shores before too long. Straight out of the starting gate, they’ve got about 2 million songs on offer. Every single one of those songs is encoded at 256kbps with no DRM. It’s that last detail that makes this such a big deal.

I’ve never been able to get my head around the justifications for DRM. In the past, I have been literally sitting in front of my computer with my credit card in hand, eager to spend money on music I love. But rather than greet me with open arms, services like iTunes instead treat me with suspicion, demanding that they get to call the shots about how I can use music that I’ve bought.

For a really egregious example of where this can lead, take note that Virgin Digital is shutting down:

All tracks used Windows Media DRM, and therefore were only playable under Windows and on WMA-compatible devices. The site now advises its customers who have purchased tracks to back them up, as they will not be able to download them again once Virgin Digital has closed. It’s unclear whether the purchasers of individual tracks will be able to access their songs without burning them to CD and reimporting them as MP3s, but it’s better to be safe than sorry if you’re one of those customers. And naturally, subscribing members will lose access altogether once their subscriptions lapse.

DRM-crippled suppliers treat me like a criminal. That turns out to be a self-fulfilling prophesy. It’s precisely because of the DRM that I resort to using peer-to-peer networks or other illicit means of music acquisition.

Make no mistake, the design of the iTunes music store trumps Amazon on just about every level. For most of the purchasing process, the user experience is far superior on iTunes. But the user experience doesn’t end with a financial transaction. The user experience of interacting with the purchased song continues long after leaving the store.

I haven’t bought anything from the iTunes music store because of the DRM. I have used it though: I’ve been given gift certificates for iTunes downloads. This is what I have to do after completing a download:

  1. Pull out the read/write CD I keep just for this,
  2. Burn my new music to the CD,
  3. Rip the music back as MP3,
  4. Erase the CD in preparation for step 1.

And that’s perfectly legal allowed by the terms of service*. But I can’t just convert from DRMed AAC straight to MP3—that would be illegal.

Now, it’s pretty clear that this kind of “copy protection” isn’t going to get in the way of anyone who seriously wants to make copies of the music. All it does is place frustrating stumbling blocks in the path of legitimate customers who want to listen to their purchased music wherever they choose.

I hope that the launch of the Amazon MP3 store is a sign that record companies are finally beginning to realise that people who want their music to be open and portable aren’t criminals—they’re music lovers.

John Gruber puts it best when he says:

Given the Amazon MP3 Store’s audio quality, prices, and user experience, I can’t see why anyone would buy DRM-restricted music from iTunes that’s available from Amazon.

In a wonderful twist, the current number one bestselling song on Amazon is 1234 by Feist— the very song that Apple uses to promote the iPod Nano. And why not? iPods and MP3s have always been a great combination (it always frustrates me when I read reports by lazy journalists that contain statements such as “only songs purchased from Apple’s iTunes music store can be played on the iPod”). I suspect that the vast majority of iPods are filled with un-DRMed music, mostly ripped from CD. Now, thanks to Amazon, there’s also an easy way to fill them with un-DRMed music downloaded from the tubes of the internets.


* Matthew points out that back-ups, archiving, shifting format, all currently illegal in the UK. Here’s the petition to change that. Even the government agrees that the current situation is pretty stupid but the law hasn’t changed.