Privacy-Invading Watermarks: Just Say No
from the foot-shooting-bad dept
A while back I had a piece at Ars Technica critiquing a study from the Center for Democracy and Technology on the use of "personalized" watermarks. I suggested that CDT should have explicitly noted that such technologies are a privacy hazard, and their only known use -- as an "anti-piracy" tool -- is counterproductive because it affects only paying customers, not people who get music illegally in the first place. CDT's David Sohn was kind enough to respond to my criticism last week. Sohn concedes that the best way to safeguard users' privacy is not to use personalized watermarks at all. He also acknowledges that fighting copyright infringement is the only known use for the technology; he speculates that additional uses might be found in the future, but he doesn't give a specific example.
Sohn's key point is that "watermarking may have some advantages over other technologies from a consumer perspective." Specifically, individualized watermarking isn't as bad as full-blown DRM, or putting unencrypted identification information in file headers. It's certainly true that the major labels have technological options that are even worse than personalized watermarks, but that's hardly an argument in favor of using the watermarks. Personalized watermarks punish paying customers less egregiously than DRM does, but they still make music less valuable by exposing customers to potential legal liability that wouldn't exist if they got music from other sources. And making your product less valuable is a bad business strategy.
Indeed, Sohn's argument strikes me as missing the forest for the trees. If someone asks you to write a report about the best way to shoot oneself in the foot, the first thing the report should say is don't shoot yourself in the foot. If the reader isn't persuaded by that section, I suppose it doesn't hurt to have a follow up section about the ways to minimize the foot-shooting damage: use small-caliber bullets, aim for the edge of the foot rather than the middle, have medical personnel close by. But a report that skips straight to the "how to" section is doing its readers a disservice. Similarly, the message music and movie publishers most need to hear is that individualized watermarks are bad for their bottom line because they only punish paying customers. Perhaps Sohn is right that most of them won't listen; if so, there's nothing wrong with also discussing ways to avoid a privacy fiasco. But CDT's report didn't even try to dissuade companies from using technologies in the first place, and I think that's a major missed opportunity.