We recently wrote about the truly stupid idea of building DRM into HTML5
. At SXSW this week, web inventor Tim Berners-Lee was asked about this, and he surprisingly defended the decision
, claiming that it was necessary to get companies to use HTML5:
During a post-talk Q&A, he defended proposals to add support for "digital rights management" usage restrictions to HTML5 as necessary to get more content on the open Web: "If we don't put the hooks for the use of DRM in, people will just go back to using Flash," he claimed.
Berners-Lee is so good on so many issues (most of his talk seemed to be about the importance of openness) that this response really stands out as not fitting with his general view of the world. Cory Doctorow has responded eloquently to TBL
, explaining why he should be against the DRM proposal.
What's more, DRM is wholly ineffective at preventing copying. I suspect Berners-Lee knows this. When geeks downplay fears over DRM, they often say things like: "Well, I can get around it, and anyway, they'll come to their senses soon enough, since it doesn't work, right?" Whenever Berners-Lee tells the story of the Web's inception, he stresses that he was able to invent the Web without getting any permission. He uses this as a parable to explain the importance of an open and neutral Internet. But what he fails to understand is that DRM's entire purpose is to require permission to innovate.
For limiting copying is only the superficial reason for adding DRM to a technology. DRM fails completely at preventing copying, but it is brilliant at preventing innovation. That's because DRM is backstopped by anti-circumvention laws like the notorious US Digital Millennium
Copyright Act of 1998 (DMCA) and the EU Copyright Directive of 2002 (EUCD), both of which make it a crime to compromise DRM, even if you're not breaking any other laws. Effectively, this means that you have to get permission from a DRM licensing authority to add any features, since all new features require removing DRM, and the DRM license terms prohibit adding any features not in the original agreement, and omitting any of the mandatory restrictions featured in that agreement.
Doctorow makes two other key points in this: (1) that the W3C (the standards setting body for HTML5) has an enormous role in keeping the web free and open -- and imposing DRM is abusing the trust it has built up and will backfire badly and (2) that the big content players who insist they "need" DRM are bluffing.
As the leading standards-setting body for the Web, the W3C has an enormous, sacred and significant trust. The future of the Web is the future of the world, because everything we do today involves the net and everything we'll do tomorrow will require it. Now it proposes to sell out that trust, on the grounds that Big Content will lock up its "content" in Flash if it doesn't get a veto over Web-innovation. That threat is a familiar one: the big studios promised to boycott US digital TV unless it got mandatory DRM. The US courts denied them this boon, and yet, digital TV continues (if only Ofcom and the BBC had heeded this example before they sold Britain out to the US studios on our own high-def digital TV standards).
Flash is already an also-ran. As Berners-Lee himself will tell you, the presence of open platforms where innovation requires no permission is the best way to entice the world to your door. The open Web creates and supplies so much value that everyone has come to it – leaving behind the controlled, Flash-like environs of AOL and other failed systems. The big studios need the Web more than the Web needs big studios.
The Big Content guys have been seeking to remake the web in their image (i.e., "TV") for over a decade now, still believing that they're
the main reason people get online. They're not. There's room for them within the ecosystem, but professional broadcast-quality content is just a part of the system, not the whole thing. If the world moves to HTML5 without DRM, the content guys will whine about it... and then follow. Especially as the more knowledgeable and forward-looking content creators jump in and succeed.