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.
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:
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.
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.