Apple's Patent For Creating A Leak-Proof Data Pipe, And Why It's Doomed To Fail

from the pointless-exercise dept

In 2001, I published a history of free software, called “Rebel Code: Inside Linux and the Open Source Revolution.” One of the people I interviewed for the book was Eben Moglen, for many years the General Counsel for the Free Software Foundation, and one of the main architects of the later versions of the GNU General Public License. He had the following interesting thoughts on the delivery of digital media:

Let’s think about the Net for a change as a collection of pipes and switches, rather than thinking of it as a thing or a space.

There’s lot of data moving through those pipes, and the switches determine who gets which data and how much they have to pay for it downstream. And of course those switches are by and large what we think of as digital computers.

The basic media company theory at the opening of the 21st century is to create a leak-proof pipe all the way from production studio to eyeball and eardrum.

Creating that “leak-proof pipe” has long been the dream not only of media companies, but also of computer companies like Apple that hope to collaborate with and ultimately supplant them. A recent patent application, found through the French title Numerama, seeks to make videos uncopiable during playback by locking down the last section of the pipe — the part that connects the computer to the screen. Here’s how Apple’s patent describes it:

Securing protected content during video playback. The embodiments provide a system that drives a display from a computer system. During operation, the system writes graphical output, generated from a copyrighted video file, to protected memory and drives the display from the protected memory. If the graphical output lacks copy protection, the system discontinues the driving of the display from the protected memory. In particular, upon detecting a lack of copy protection in the graphical output, the system continues to drive the display from the protected memory during a grace period associated with the lack of protection in the graphical output. The system then discontinues driving of the display from the protected memory if protection of the graphical output does not resume during the grace period.

The rest of the patent describes the details of the process. What’s striking — and sad — is the effort and ingenuity that has been put into making things less convenient for the end user. After all, introducing a system that automatically shuts down when it thinks security may be absent is a recipe for disaster — as if current DRM screw-ups weren’t enough of problem.

Moreover, Apple’s system will fail, just as all the other approaches to “protecting content” have failed. Anything involving copy protection is regarded as a challenge by certain people; it’s not a question of “if” the particular scheme employed by Apple will be broken, but “when”. And there’s another, deeper reason why such attempts won’t ever work. As Moglen explained to me all those years ago:

The switch that most threatens that pipe is the one at the end. If the switch closest to your eyeball and your eardrum is under your complete technical control, the whole rest of the aqueduct can be as leak-proof as they like, and it won’t do them any good. And the switch is under your control, of course, if the software is free software.

While there’s free software, the data pipe will always be leaky.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or, and on Google+

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Comments on “Apple's Patent For Creating A Leak-Proof Data Pipe, And Why It's Doomed To Fail”

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art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

who would buy such crap ? ? ?

1. sheeple who don’t know better, or are abject authoritarians…

2. virtually all the rest of us who either can’t or don’t have the time/resources to build THEIR OWN blu-ray player, PC, phone, etc which circumvent (probably illegally) the restrictions which will be mandated to be built-in to fucking EVERYTHING…

the arc of his story is not bending to the 99%…

art guerrilla
aka ann archy

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

I have to agree with art guerrilla. It doesn’t matter if the technology can be circumvented. What matters is what percentage of people are going to spend the time/effort/money to do it. That percentage is getting smaller everyday.

We are clearly moving toward a model of streaming, so you will never have a physical copy of anything. That should pretty much clear up the debate over whether you actually “own” the content you pay for.

Aside from this patent, software is rapidly moving towards online only, Google’s got the Chromebook, and games are clearly headed that way. Yes I know EA screwed the pooch with the whole Sims debacle, but you’re crazy if think they won’t just keep working toward making their system work smoother. Ask yourself, if their system worked flawlessly, would anyone have said anything, or just put up with it.

Tim Griffiths (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Who would buy music, video, books and software that would cease to work on the whim of a content provider company?

Oh… 😛

Now I guess what you are saying is that screens are big ticket items but is that really true? You can easily get a kinda ok PC monitor for ?50-150… that’s 3 or 4 games and frankly I’ve brought way more than that in the last year that does have some form of DRM in it (steam being the main example).

As prices fall and company lobbies attempt to mandate that all monitors must come with these lock downs (which is less contentious than having it on hard drives which is something they have talked about) is it really going to be seen as that much of a big deal by most people? Sadly I think not.

Anonymous Coward says:

Another example of why copyright is a bad idea in the modern world. The only way of implementing this is to place the user device totally under the control of third parties. I am sure Both apple and Microsoft would have no problem with this, as it implies that they control all the software on the machines sold to the user.
At best only two out of General purpose computers, the Internet and Copyright can co-exist.

out_of_the_blue says:

And so too will VPNs "pipes" be cracked!

The “switch” between your eyeballs and wherever is the ISPs! They know exactly who you are and where you are, get first crack at all data from your machine. As you all surely know, with long enough sampling of wireless packets, keys can be deduced; same too with your passwords to proxy or VPN, isn’t it? — That is, if even if they’re not at some time in plain text.

Technology cuts both ways, kids.

By the way, ever notice how much focus here is on keeping identity hidden? The most obvious purpose is so you can download infringed content.

Take a loopy tour of! You always end up same place!
Techdirt fanboys can’t understand that a VPN doesn’t protect them when the ISP man-in-the-middle KNOWS exactly who they are and where!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: And so too will VPNs "pipes" be cracked!

“They know exactly who you are and where you are, get first crack at all data from your machine.”

* facepalm *

All the ISP sees is a connection from me to a VPN service. If the data is encrypted, how the heck are they going to do anything about it?

Same thing for the other end (except for the encryption).

What if I use multiple hops (a la tor)?

“As you all surely know, with long enough sampling of wireless packets, keys can be deduced; same too with your passwords to proxy or VPN, isn’t it? “

* facepalm * numero 2.

That technique relies on a known weakness of WPA and WEP protocols. WPA2, for example, has no such weaknesses. I never actually used VPN software, but the SSH tunnelling protocol has no such weaknesses, if used correctly.

Face it blue, you are fighting against decades of cryptography research. It is a fight that cannot be won.

art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: Re: And so too will VPNs "pipes" be cracked!

not that li’l boy blue is richtig, BUT it hardly takes any imagination to speculate that IF VPNs became the next big thing to avoid detection (WHETHER for ‘legal’ or ‘illegal’ purposes), THEN they will be regulated or outlawed to make them unusable for the nefarious purposes us great unwashed put them to…

aside, i have completed step one of my desire to make my online presence more ‘anonymous’, ‘free’, and safer: using OpenDNS was easy peasy japanesy…

while i ‘registered’ for the free service, you can do it by simply visiting the site and getting the DNS IP numbers directly and changing your router setting to point to them for DNS resolution…

not a hiccup, and it does seem like web pages are loading a trifle faster, but that is merely a bonus…

next step this weekend is to see if i can get OpenVPN to work with my router directly, or if i might have to go to some paid service…

art guerrilla
aka ann archy

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: And so too will VPNs "pipes" be cracked!

I do expect the next copyright bill, now likely being written to address VPNS, becuase it came out last year that people were using VPNs to circumvent geoblocking and get Eurovision and BBC Olympics coverage. That might prod Congress to outlaw VPNs in the next copyright bill for that reason.

I am surprised that NBC did not lobby Congress last year for some kind of ban or restrictions on VPNs.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: And so too will VPNs be cracked!

VPNs will never be cracked. Why do you think that SOPA had a ban on VPNs in it? There are some that want to ban or restrict VPNs becuse VPN is so secure that it will never be cracked. This is why Oman and Pakistan outlaw VPNs, and Iran and China resrict them. Since VPN will never be cracked, governments have considered outlawing them.

Wally (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

“Not your silly argument about ‘its a different instruction set so its a different patent’ again. Fuck off and die already fanboi!”

Maybe you misread the fact that I clearly implied that since its been attempted already in one instruction set and failed miserably that the adaptation to another will also fail miserably. I simply won’t fuck off when you don’t get the picture.

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Like chasing the pipe dream of having an absolute and unchallenged monopoly on smart phones and tablets.

Even though others have been in the phone business for decades. Even though it took the combined efforts of many companies to develop and standardize the basic underlying technologies, such as GSM; everyone should just go away and let Apple have it all.

DannyB (profile) says:

Is it too much to ask?

Can’t we all just get patented brain implants at birth?

A leak proof two way digital pipe all they way directly in to your brain. Think of the advantages.

Whenever you hear or see anything copyrighted, you could be charged automatically. Think of the costs to society that would be saved by reducing the work of collection societies trying to collect their licensing revenues from garage mechanics playing the radio within earshot of the public.

People who think bad thoughts about rich, powerful or connected people could get the proper treatment automatically.

When such people hide, they could be easily tracked.

People could be accused of being pedophiles without any proof needed. You could be taken away for treatment upon the mere accusation that you: Think of the children!

The copyright folks won’t rest until everyone has these brain implants, so why not just give in and accept that as the way things should be. Like accepting intellectual property as if it were not imaginary property.

Votre (profile) says:

Next step: eliminate open hardware

All the more reason to get rid of general purpose unrestricted PCs and shuffle the enduser into a centrally administrated cloud-based operating system -or- onto a locked-down data appliance, right?

I wonder how long we’ll still be able to buy a completely ‘open’ hardware platform to run our ‘open’ software on.

UEFI wasn’t a problem until Microsoft introduced SecureBoot and began twisting arms to force everybody to get onboard with it. And look how effectively the supposedly ‘open’ Android platform has been fragmented and locked down by the various telcos. All (allegedly) in the name of “network security” and “improved user experience.”

Things like this are just the tip of the iceberg. If it continues, say good-bye to the PC as we know it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Next step: eliminate open hardware

There is a counter-movement in the form of things like the Raspberry Pi. Creating open hardware platforms is getting cheaper and cheaper.

And at the other end of the scale, the server people will not put up with non-open hardware platforms easily; a lot of servers run Linux. Notice how “Secure Boot” is not a requirement for the server variants of Windows, only the client variants.

Votre (profile) says:

Re: Re: Next step: eliminate open hardware

Agree on both points. But it would only take the stroke of a pen to pass a law requiring a lockdown and/or positive mechanism be incorporated into a device. It could even be engineered into the CPU itself. So unless you can control chip fabrication, things like the Raspberry Pi are no permanent silver bullet.

Intel previously tried (at the urging of some big software developers) to put a positive ID mechanism into their CPUs until public and governmental pressure made them provide the capability for the PC owners to disable it. Unfortunately, in today’s political climate I don’t think we can expect government to take the public’s side anywhere near as much as it used to.

As far as servers go (I work with them for a living) it’s true they run open software. And SecureBoot is not a requirement. But Redhat and Ubuntu have already caved in on SecureBoot by playing Microsoft’s game and obtaining the requisite certificate from Microsoft. So it’s already begun to creep into the Linux world.

Note too that SecureBoot isn’t an actual requirement to run any flavor of Windows. There are enough non-UEFI equipped PCs out there that Microsoft isn’t about to forego that market by requiring SecureBoot. And you can disable UEFI (at least so far on most systems) and get Win 8 to run. But it introduces some hassles and extra steps when you do. And that inconvenience is enough to get the average user to not fight it.

None of this bodes well. Or so it seems to me.

madasahatter (profile) says:

Leaky Pipes

The problem with trying to control the user’s computer is that buggy software will cause complaints. When it is traced back to the this DRM there will be screaming and lawsuits (for once the shysters may be useful). Also, bad press is not good for business, EA screwed up SimCity and has badly damaged their reputation with gamers and anyone they influence. Now I am wary of buying any game from EA because I do not trust their DRM scheme to cause more problems than its worth; a permanently lost sale is worse than any “pirated” download.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I could possibly be wrong here but wouldn’t the video file not need to pass through the GPU? Where you can easily store the images from there?

I think the GPU would be part of the scheme. It would be on the content company’s side, not on your side, and refuse to output to anything that doesn’t signal that it has copy protection. And then presumably the computer would fail to work with a GPU that doesn’t behave that way. Basically your computer would be treating you as an adversary.

Lord Binky says:

Are they that stupid? There are plenty of pirates that will watch videos recorded off a screen with a phone camera if that’s all that’s available.

If they are right and within the pirates are evil criminal masterminds that reap millions of dollars for their nefarious work, they can undo any protection.

How? The same chips and technology they are using to inconvenience their real customers. All it takes is one person or group to circumvent the protection, then distribute that data. Yes the workload for pirates is backwards from how it used to be, it is now easier to distrubute a million copies of some media than it is to convert/unlock that media initially. (Fansubs for example, it’s easier to get 1,000 copies of a fan subtitled anime to different people than the the previous process of recording 1,000 video cds or *gasp* VHS tapes, but it was easy to initially aquire the original media since any video recorder worked and generally well enough)

Pirates WILL get the data, you can’t stop that if you are trying sell that data to as many millions of people as you can. Pirates simply just have to put the data in an open form, short of every industry and system blocking uncopyrighted data, these techniques will always fail.

PlagueSD says:


Because Apple has run out of innovative ideas a LONG time ago.

Also, this protection will be EASY to crack. Just get a darkened room and a video camera. Set the video camera on a tripod looking at the TV and have your audio coming from your sound system into the audio inputs of your camera. Voila!!! Instant DRM-free copy!!!

To truly have a leakproof pipe, Apple will need a way to also control the space between the screen and our eyes.

hammerjack (profile) says:

It’s funny everyone is pretending that because Apple patents something they will be employing it or at least intend to? My bet is it’s purely territorial and I’m glad someone other than RIAA is behind controlling it. Probably looks pretty good for Apple when trying to negotiate with content providers (even if Apple knows and believes the concept is bulls*&t). Seems a good investment to placate the vultures.

zub says:

Windows have had this since Vista

As mentioned in some previous comments… it seems HDCP + DRM in Windows since Vista is the same thing.

Recently I was buying a display. I tried to find something that does not have HDCP. (I don’t like the idea of paying for licence to Intel, or Digital Content Protection, LLC, for technology that restricts what I can do.) But I gave up, of course everything now comes with HDCP – otherwise whoever buys the display would not be able to play their BluRay movies in HD on Windows…

Oh, and don’t forget the support in graphic cards – another license of HDCP and extra silicon I don’t want but have to pay for.

Here’s some info on what Vista brought to the table DRM-wise:

Also, it’s funny Apple can patent the same thing. 🙂

G Thompson (profile) says:

Laws of Physics make all of these 'patents' moot

Oh this takes me back.

Basically the patent, and any patent like this having to do with electronics is absolutely pointess.

You can leakproof the ‘pipe’ as much as you want the problem is that the whole thing can then be totally made moot by what some guy called Faraday [physicists and Electonic/Electrical Engineers might know of him 😉 ] discovered back in the 1800’s about the basic laws of electro-magnetic radiation and a little thing called induction.

Basically if you have wires or a circuit going somewhere and electrons move in that circuit creating signals of any type, say to a monitor or other visual/audio device, then a magnetic field WILL be caused and that field can be measured, re-interpreted and then made into an EXACT copy of those signals to be then sent to a new device that might record those signals to be sent to anything ad -infinitum

So the pipe might be secure, but the ends of the pipe NEED to connect to something and the area (Air/space) surrounding that pipe (unless you want to use a Faraday Cage and even then that can be removed) is NEVER leak proof unless you remove all electro-magnetism and then well.. No more electronics.

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