The Return of DRM

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Originally written for the nettime-l mailing list which lead to a follow-up discussion, here, and here.

In early 2007, Steve Jobs (of all people!) concluded in his 'Thoughts on Music' that "DRMs haven’t worked, and may never work."1 Soon after, one label after the other started selling music in "unstricted"2 formats, and there was much celebration about the death of DRM. And, there were lots of reasons see things this way: Digital Rights Management Systems were very unpopular with the public. People hated them. Plain and simple. And they were technically unstable, because the encryption, once released to the public, was regularly broken within a few days. And attempts to re-engineer the entire computer operating system to make DRM possible -- Windows Vista -- turned out be be equally unpopular and fraught with internal problems.

Fast-forward three years. Increasingly, our data is up in the clouds. The decentralized architectures for digital production of the 1990s are being phased-out. Google is pushing an operating system (Chrome) were all data is being stored online and virtually nothing remains on the computer. The device which individuals own is being reduced to a relatively dumb terminal. The apple IPad, it seems, is optimized for consumption (and thus hailed as the savior of the old, consumer oriented media industries).

Much of online social interaction and production takes place on vast, centralized platforms. The older DIY approaches -- from mailing lists to independently run networks such as Indymedia and even p2p networks -- are fading away and are supplanted by super-professional service approaches. There are lots of reasons, and some of them very good ones, for this development. That's not my concern at the moment.

More remarkable is that part of this development is the return of DRM. This time, not out in the open, accessible to the user, but completely hidden, built into the deep structure of the platforms themselves. The case in point here is YouTube. It has morphed from a freewheeling platform where users could share whatever they wanted, to a highly controlled system, where all content is scanned and mointored for copyright violation. According to YouTube itself, this works the following way3:

Rights holders deliver YouTube reference files (audio-only or video) of content they own, metadata describing that content, and policies on what they want YouTube to do when we find a match.

We compare videos uploaded to YouTube against those reference files.

Our technology automatically identifies your content and applies your preferred policy: monetize, track, or block.

As they conclude it: "It's up to you." Which sounds great, it's up to you, until one realizes, that are not speaking to us, but to the big content owners.

Much of the work done by YouTube and other platforms has been to put the content industry back in control, even though it's a control controlled by the platform providers. So there is considerable tension among the old and new players in the media industries, but as they work out their differences, users are becoming becoming more precarious, more dependent, and more controlled. And the tool to do this is ubiquitous DRM. Each and every file on YouTube is processed through their DRM and, of possible, made entirely dependent on arbitrary decisions of content owners, who can now, at any moment, make disappear files that include portions of their content.

A few days ago, Constantin Film decided to use their option and had all films which contained portions of their Hitler melodrama "Downfall (Untergang)" deleted from YouTube. There were hundreds of clips, since changing the subtitles of the scene where Hitler realizes that the war was lost had become a subgenre in itself.4 This DRM systems know no fair use exemption. Control is total. There is no problem of the files being re-uploaded, the system is effective, real-time and scales effortlessly.

And the better YouTube and others become at this, the more pressure will be applied on those platforms which have not yet implemented something similar. Which, it seems easy to predict, will lead to a further concentration in this already highly concentrated field.

Of course, individually each of us can be smart enough to avoid these things, and many of us are members in closed file-sharing communities that function without such restrictions. But, socially, we can see how control is creeping back, how DRM is becoming part of the infrastructure, and how it is affecting our speech and culture in ways that are neither predictable nor accountable. With a flip of a button, one which you have no access to, all your nice little remixes can disappear, even if they were online for a long time. It's all up to them!

PS: Of course, there is a Hitler parody of this removal up online. Just not on Youtube. http://www.vimeo.com/11086952

How long will it take vimeo to implement their own DRM?

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1 http://www.apple.com/hotnews/thoughtsonmusic/

2 mp3, is, of course, a proprietary format, and thus restricted, but most
people were only interested in copy-restrictions, and not patent issue.

3 http://www.youtube.com/t/contentid

4 http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2010/04/attack-on-hitler-
parodies-now-newest-front-in-copyright-wars.ars