Hide Techdirt is off for the long weekend! We'll be back with our regular posts tomorrow.

Why A Blockchain-based DRM Has Always Been A Terrible Idea

from the and-why-copyright-maximalists-gravitate-towards-it dept

I’ve threatened in the past to write up a post explaining why a blockchain-based DRM is a terrible idea that will flop — and it appears I finally need to do so, with the sort of announcement that Sony is preparing to use the blockchain for “next-gen DRM.” I should note that, unlike some people, I’m actually not a blockchain skeptic. I think that it does have a few potentially revolutionary and disruptive uses. But… I also think that nearly every use of the blockchain that has been championed so far is incredibly silly and pointless. In most cases, what people claim they’re using a blockchain for would better be served with… a database. If you’re just replacing a database with a blockchain-based system, all you’re really doing is adding unnecessary inefficiency and complexity.

So while a blockchain does have efficiency and complexity weaknesses compared to a database, it does have two potential advantages — but only if those advantages are necessary to the service being built. The first advantage is that the blockchain can be truly distributed, rather than centralized. For years, we’ve discussed the problems of too many centralized systems, whether it’s the siloing of information, the weird incentives it creates for the central database controller, or simply the fact that a centralized system creates a single point of failure and/or point of attack for a would-be assailant. A blockchain can help limit (though not eliminate) some of those problems — and that can open up some incredible new services. The second big thing that a blockchain does better than a database is that it creates a more trustworthy way to prevent the “double spending” problem.

The issue there is that with anything digital, it can always be copied and/or manipulated in some way. If you are trying to construct something that requires scarcity — such as a digital currency or a specific ledger of asset ownership — then you want to be sure that the system really has a 100% accurate record, and won’t allow the same bit of digital currency to be held by multiple people (or allowing it to be spent multiple times by the same person) or, that the same asset is listed as being owned by different entities. One of the cool features of the Blockchain is that it is designed such that people can be fairly cryptographically certain that we don’t have that sort of “double spending” problem. You do have to trust the math and the code, but the code is open and people are constantly checking it. Now, you can claim a centralized database can prevent these kinds of things too, but you have to totally trust whoever is in control over that centralized database. And you might. Most of the money you probably have is really in a centralized database at your bank. But, there are some advantages to have that record be on a publicly distributed ledger a la the blockchain.

The issue, of course, is finding services and applications that can really take advantage of these benefits of the blockchain, and so far, they are few and far between, though there are plenty of future possibilities where they could be super useful.

For years now, we’ve heard some people arguing for a blockchain-based DRM. This idea is at least marginally better than simply replacing a database with an unnecessary blockchain, because at the very least, it is an attempt (a weak one, but an attempt) to leverage one of the advantages I discuss above: the double spending issue. Obviously, as lots of people will tell you, the legacy copyright industries have decried the fact that the internet makes content super easy to copy, making their legal monopoly over the distribution of that content less than monopolistic. Thus, the folks who wish to go back to a world in which content is locked up, hear about how a blockchain “solves” the double spending problem, and they get excited: why couldn’t we use that as DRM? After all, isn’t the point of that aspect of the blockchain that it stops copying of digital assets?

But, that’s about as far as the thought process goes. Because from there, it completely breaks down. There are few actual details about Sony’s blockchain-based DRM idea, but it’s not difficult to understand why it will fail. First, it’s important to understand something that copyright supporters frequently forget: the copyright on something is different from the content itself. Copyright system supporters like to conflate the content itself and the “intellectual property.” But as we’ve explained in the past while a “copyright” may have property-like elements, the underlying content does not.

The blockchain-based system for solving the double spend problem is a useful solution when it’s the record or ledger entry that you don’t want copied. But that’s not what any DRM system would be. Because the “record” is the copyright information — not the music/movie/book/etc. And who cares whether or not you can copyright the copyright information? You’re solving the wrong problem? The content itself can still get copied. There’s no way to stop that, because even if you were to somehow encode the actual content in the blockchain (a pointless idea), you’d still have the analog hole to deal with, as the content would inevitably escape the blockchain.

The other reason why a blockchain-based DRM solution is so dumb is because it actively goes against what the public wants. The reason a disruptive or transformational technology works is because it provides the public with something much better than they had before. A blockchain-based DRM solution provides a worse solution. There is no demand for such a thing. Sure, there may be “demand” on the label side, but that doesn’t translate to usage.

The final reason why a blockchain-based DRM solution is utterly stupid is conveyed quite nicely by Cory Doctorow in his BoingBoing post about this announcement, in which he notes that what Sony is proposing appears to be a privacy nightmare:

Sony also implies that every transaction in which someone buys a creative work will end up in the ledger. This has extremely grave privacy implications, but it also has nothing to do with preventing copyright infringement. People who lawfully acquire copyrighted works have the right to sell them, lend them, and give them away — and they are not liable if (for example) their data (including copyrighted works) is stolen and released online.

The fact that Sony publishes a list of the reading, viewing and listening habits of every one of its customers does not give it any basis for seeking damages from those customers if works they purchased show up in someone else’s hands.

The whole idea of a blockchain-based DRM is based on a faulty understanding of either the blockchain, copyright, or (most likely) both. It involves people who wish to return to a world of artificial scarcity around content not thinking past the fact that a blockchain lets you solve the double-spend problem, without understanding why that doesn’t make any sense at all in the world of copyright, where it’s the content that’s the issue, and not the copyright.

Filed Under: , , , , , ,
Companies: sony

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Why A Blockchain-based DRM Has Always Been A Terrible Idea”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
35 Comments
Bruce C. says:

Block-chain for DRM...

I can understand your skepticism, but there might be a place for blockchain in providing a ledger of licensees linked to the copyrighted works that are licensed. If the licensee is correlated to a specific user account on (say) YouTube, or other platforms, it could solve one of the two big problems automated DRM: take-downs of legitimately licensed content, or content in the public domain. The Content-ID can currently identify the copyrighted work’s presence at a particular URL (at least in theory), and the licensing ledger can be used to filter out valid licensees from getting a takedown and/or copyright strike.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Block-chain for DRM...

The issue there is that what you’re suggesting is just a database, with no advantages to using block-chain to store that database. There’s no double-spending problem with licenses, as such licenses are non-transferable to begin with, nor are there advantages from reducing centralization, as centralization is the entire point.

James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: Re: Block-chain for DRM...

Well there is a value to decentralization, but its a consumer benefit. As I discussed in my responce, which I accidentally didn’t post as a reply, Copyright ownership and licencing in a decentralized ledger is a pro-public, pro-artist, pro-consumer move that would significantly reduce large swaths of the issues around determining copyright ownership.

L "Beau" Banger says:

Well, you can file serial numbers off a gun too.

I think you’re trying to find fault and not seeing the true purpose, which is to:

A) enforce players checking blockchain: those that don’t are thereby ILLEGAL.

B) verifiable that any given copy of "the content" is NOT authorized.

And of course, there’s NO DRM that you’ll find acceptable, you’re a quaint relic of last century believing that content can be distributed for just above cost of bandwidth and that giant corporations can be funded by T-shirts, or pink unicorns leading to a pot of gold at end of rainbow.

James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: Well, you can file serial numbers off a gun too.

The article discusses the blockchain as DRM, not as licence storage that DRM then checks against. The blockchain has no advantages over a normal database in this case – the same goal of a DRM crack applies, bypass the database check.

As I note below, there is potential advantage in bypassing the license server shutdown for already licenced games via a distributed ledger, but your insistence that the blockchain being DRM being a technically unfeasable privacy violating mess is only true because we want to steal content means I am unlikley to be able to discuss this ftuitfully with you.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Well, you can file serial numbers off a gun too.

you’re a quaint relic of last century believing that content can be distributed for just above cost of bandwidth

Oh, it can, and much more of it than you can ever keep track of is. The question is are individuals allowed to self publish in competition with corporations, or can only corporations own copyrights for works that are published?

My opinion, if the corporations cannot compete with millions of individuals on the Internet, they should change its business model, or die.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Well, you can file serial numbers off a gun too.

“quaint relic of last century”

With age comes wisdom … but also senility, one must learn to see the difference.

Why accept something that is clearly not needed, forcibly adds to the overall cost and usually results in loss of product? DRM is a scourge upon the general public solely for profit.

James Burkhardt (profile) says:

But that is not DRM in and of itself, which is what the article discusses. The blockchain as a distributed ledger maintaining licences and ownership is useful in and of itself, irrespective of its ability to be used as part of DRM. In fact, I believe Mike discussed in the past the value of the copyright office moving to a blockchain to prevent the orphaning of registered works and maintain clear ownership trails.

But in and of itself, the blockchain is not useful as DRM. A distributed ledger might be valuable to resolve the licence validation server shutdown issue, but otherwise provides no benefit over a standard database in DRM work, which is what I think Mike was trying to say.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"The blockchain as a distributed ledger maintaining licences and ownership is useful in and of itself…"

Even that isn’t a good way to use it. We’re not talking about several million people all having access to a distributed way of handling transactions.

We’re talking about millions of people being part of (and having access to) a database which is unlocked by ONE key. That’s arguably so much worse than failing to airgap a confidential database, imho, and it’s a question of when, not if, that key becomes public property.

Fine if the only info available is supposed to be public, not so fine otherwise.

Then again, what the OP describes is Sony so if the general topic is "operational security" or "DRM" then I wouldn’t be too surprised if the method we find them wanting to employ is a high-altitude EMP pulse.

john Smith says:

Isn’t USENET run on something like a blockchain?

I’m not a fan of DRM but I do favor strong copyright enforcement as much on creative grounds (control over one’s work) than economic.

DRM is generaly pointless, since the key to piracy is the ability to advertise bootlegs, not having the bootlegged copies. If you can’t market your pirated goods it’s as if they don’t exist. People have been taping songs off the radio since well before the internet.

What I’m seeing lately as the model that is keeping legacy publishers around, it’s not copyright enforcement, but the sheer power of credibility and distribution. If some guest on an NBC talk show plugs a book people go out and buy it without thinking of piracy. That has more to do with branding and celebrity than the inability to pirate. Internet works are believed to be free anyway so people don’t see it as theft because the target of the theft is not rich (due to piracy). This kills the benefits of distribution for the individual.

Many celebrities also give away their work for like 24 hours or whatever, not caring about lost sales, but more about getting their work into the public. The books are often paid for by the advertising time they generate on talk shows rather than from sales themsevlves. The authors get paid for being on the shows through increased sales, and the shows create advertising time to be sold. This is not a “free” business model for the authors, since they are still being paid. Without that distribution and credibility edge, as with an internet-based product, this payment is not there.

Copyright as we know it has been dying for a while now. Patronage and advertising are the replacemments, for better or worse. DRM won’t make much of a dent except to annoy legitimate customers, much the way those “adult proofed” caps on medicine bottles do, the ones a four year-old can still open.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“I’m not a fan of DRM but I do favor strong copyright enforcement as much on creative grounds (control over one’s work) than economic.”

Then, you surely realise that overly restrictive copyright actually stifles creativity and restricts artists’ freedom to create their work, right?

“If some guest on an NBC talk show plugs a book people go out and buy it without thinking of piracy.”

Some will also pirate it. Some will also obtain the product through perfectly legal means without payment to the author.

“This is not a “free” business model for the authors”

Yes, it absolutely is. They gave away something for free, which the consumer did not have to pay for. That they then capitalised on the freebie to generate more revenue down the road doesn’t mean it wasn’t free, it just makes it good business sense.

“Without that distribution and credibility edge, as with an internet-based product, this payment is not there.”

Erm, are you actually saying that people paid to shill their product on a TV talk show have more credibility than people who use online methods? Is gullible your middle name, or your nickname?

“Patronage and advertising are the replacemments, for better or worse”

Not really. There’s certainly more than those two options, and neither of them preclude copyright – in fact they may still depend on it. The only thing that’s being replaced is the “pay up front and hope you get something worth what you paid” model.

renato (profile) says:

Secondary market for digital files?

Sony also implies that every transaction in which someone buys a creative work will end up in the ledger. This has extremely grave privacy implications, but it also has nothing to do with preventing copyright infringement. People who lawfully acquire copyrighted works have the right to sell them, lend them, and give them away — and they are not liable if (for example) their data (including copyrighted works) is stolen and released online.

By tracking and creating an artificial scarcity doesn’t it allow the emergence of a secondary market for digital files?

Currently you cannot sell those digital assets.
The main argument against such market is that anyone would be able to create a copy of the product and sell it, while keeping the original or just spawning multiple copies.
But if you guarantee that every license was legally created and can track them, what (except greed) would limit people to sell them to a third party?

James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: Secondary market for digital files?

Well, that relies on effective DRM to validate against the license block chain, and its already unclear if the block chain can do this any more effectively than a centralized database. But moreover, DRM at this time is imperfect. So if you gain access to the legal version, strip the DRM, and the same problem emerges. Your solution still doesn’t solve the issue. The existence of a licence block chain instead of a central server doesn’t resolve the issue of content whose DRM to check the block chain is bypassed.

And that still, once again, is NOT BLOCKCHAIN AS DRM! Why is everyone insisting on arguing that blockchain could work as a licencing ledger proves blockchain has value as a full fledged DRM module?

Thad (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Secondary market for digital files?

To customers? None.

To sellers? The argument is generally that DRM is an effective way to prevent people from illegally sharing content they’ve downloaded, and that if someone downloads a file illegally, that’s the equivalent to losing a sale.

Those arguments are both pretty heavily flawed, for reasons that Techdirt has covered at considerable length.

To middlemen? DRM is great; it locks both buyers and sellers into your platform. It makes it less likely that your customers will buy from other stores, which in turn makes it much harder for sellers to pull up stakes and find another reseller in case of a dispute.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

"Like a mousetrap, DRM won’t ever be perfect."

Unlike a mousetrap DRM isn’t even beneficial for it’s stated purpose. As someone said earlier, DRM is massively beneficial to the middleman who intends a lock-in effect. It’s also beneficial to the snake oil salesman peddling the DRM since one use tends to make it an expensive solution to switch.

To anyone else, from creator to consumer, DRM is either merely redundant and irrelevant (rarely), massively inconvenient, or outright dangerous.

renato (profile) says:

Re: Re: Secondary market for digital files?

For me it would be more effective because it could not be unilaterally changed by the license provider.
Not reeling on a central database would also mean more flexibility to buy/sell them independently of the central power.

I agree with you that if the users want to pirate, it won’t stop them, as probably almost no system would.
But it gives them a a legal alternative that is closer to physical goods, which is the standard that people use as how fair is the digital equivalent.

And that still, once again, is NOT BLOCKCHAIN AS DRM! Why is everyone insisting on arguing that blockchain could work as a licencing ledger proves blockchain has value as a full fledged DRM module?

I think we are using different interpretations here, but a license blockchain is literally a Digital Rights Management system.

James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Secondary market for digital files?

We certainly are. Block chain is a database, that is decentralized.

DRM (digital Rights management) is a software mechanism designed to prevent a computer or other digital device from operating as the user directs it if such action is prohibited by the operator of the DRM, ostensibly to protect property-like rights in digital data.

Nothing in blockchain technology inherently prevents the use of the data stored in that blockchain. It prevents the manipulation of the data stored in the blockchain, but anyone can copy the data contained on the chain and manipulate it. you just can’t commit the edited data, you can only commit a new block. And that means it fails as a DRM scheme, because if say, game data, is stored on the blockchain, nothing in blockchain prevent access to unlicenced users. In fact, blockchain tech is designed to allow users to access that data, so they can store a copy of the distributed ledger and increase trust in the chain.

How do you think it is ‘literally’ DRM? Is my pricing database a DRM system? My quickbooks datafile? Because that data is all blockchain is.

Zof (profile) says:

It's not hard to understand

For some solutions blockchain reduces complexity by combining a currency for payment with a decentralized ledger. You can justify it that way. But barely. There’s also potentially a cost argument, but it disappears in a puff of logic when you consider USENET, or even DNS as an alternative decentralized or hierarchical system. Both have been used for years to hold tokens by slick programmers.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...
Loading...