Saturday, December 10, 2005

Sony DRM woes

Yet more news on the BBC about Sony’s ongoing DRM troubles. All around you can hear the sound of Sony execs weeping into their beers, the outraged howls of stung customers, and the sniggers of those of us who find the whole things hilarious.

Sony are, they assure us, repenting. Good. Is it possible that other organisations will look upon this mess, and learn from it? The lesson is simple:

You can’t use technology to keep the world away from something they want.

It just doesn’t work. There are too many of us out here, and some are cleverer at undoing locks than your guys are at locking things up. Just because your security system baffles you, it’s no guarantee that you’ll baffle every one of us. Statistically, it’s practically inevitable that somewhere out here in the real world will be someone with the patience, experience and intellect to discover what you’ve done, and how to get around it.

As someone said of the IRA: we only have to get lucky once, and we’re in; to keep us out, you have to get lucky every time. And luck, ultimately, is really the only factor.

(I once worked briefly in a flea market. In one corner of the giant cellar in which it was housed was a group of pinball machines. Every few weeks, the people managing these would come and take one away, and replace it with another, different one. As soon as they’d gone, the little tribe of resident teenage pinny-wizards would swarm over the thing, probing its secrets.

(Within an hour, you could go over to them and ask ‘What’s the trick with this one?’, and they’d say ‘You smack it there, and it gives you a free game’, or ‘Tilt it, and then hit it here’. If such simple tricks failed, they’d prise back the beading on the glass cover, feed a wire coat-hook in, and wiggle it on one of the bumpers until they’d run up a hundred free games. When the numbers got low, they’d ring up another hundred.

(These were pubescent kids, most of them truanting from school, where their academic records were doubtless unremarkable. In minutes they could work their way past the best protection Bally could dream up. Necessity is the mother of some pretty amazing inventions.)

The Security Industry – once a simple sop for the paranoid, but since 9-11 an overriding fact of life – responds to these things by cranking up the sensitivity of their systems. This just makes them more likely to go off spectacularly when spuriously triggered. So false positives become a daily occurrence: cash machines that won’t allow you to get at your own money; the lone car in the parking lot, its alarm wailing away, urgently reporting nothing to no-one; ‘license keys’ with enough bits to specify every particle in the universe. Sometimes it’s easier to go on the Web and get the hack than it is to hunt down the box to find the 24-digit key.

All security systems have this in common: they are a wretched inconvenience to those who have legitimate rights to whatever it is they’re protecting. In contrast, they usually pose little difficulty to the properly-equipped people they’re supposed to keep out.

In ‘80-‘81 I worked in one of the first computer shops. Some software was ‘protected’ and some wasn’t. The unprotected stuff we all messed with, and learned to use. Using the protected stuff would cost our little start-up the price of the package, which we couldn’t afford. So we learned the stuff we could work with, recommended it and sold it by the crate-load.

Later, with the help of early cracker programs and bit-copiers, we managed to make copies of stuff we were interested in for our own use, and we learned that too. And we recommended and sold it. Far from losing out because of what’s now dramatically called ‘software piracy’, the developers of the software benefited enormously in new sales.

This is still the situation today, except that many more types of information are available as digital data, able to be reproduced endlessly without degradation. Even in the analogue days - when the only sources were records and radio, and the only recording mechanism was analogue cassette – the music companies allowed themselves to be convinced that every taped song would otherwise represent a sale. They started the ‘Home Taping is Killing Music’ campaign on the back of that notion, but it seems as though nobody paid attention except for an enterprising bunch who set up FACT and FAST, and now make money by propagating the idea that people are ‘stealing’ from the copyright owners. Who gets to see these messages? Why, those who buy or rent DVDs and videos, of course, and then have to sit through little scenes showing what corrupt swine pirate video sellers are, despite the fact that this audience – having bought or rented a genuine DVD – are presumably the last people who need to be told.

Ultimately, such inaccurate targeting is not the most erroneous aspect of this business, of course. The primary raison d’être takes care of that, suggesting that every taped song, film or program is a direct loss to the copyright holder. It isn’t: the overwhelming majority of copied media go to people who would otherwise never obtain a legitimate copy, because it’s too expensive, or because it’s not worth the cost to them – which is really the same thing.

A pirate copier supplies his own media. In the absence of manuals, he may buy 3rd-party books to learn to use the program – and there’s little doubt that pirate software is responsible for a large portion of the sales of such books. He’ll make no use of official tech support, and must fix his own problems. He costs nothing at all.

But those same pirates may well like their stolen property, and recommend it to others. If it’s software, and the need arises for their company to acquire a package, which one is he going to recommend? The same applies to music and film.

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