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IEEE working group considers kinder, gentler DRM


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People don't like DRM in large part because it removes much of their control over things like e-books, music, and movies. Want to loan a DRMed song to a friend? You probably can't, even though sharing a physical item like a CD remains trivial.

A new IEEE working group has an ambitious plan to change this and return control over "digital personal property" to consumers. DRM's electronic tethers would be cut, but rightsholders would not need to remove all limits on sharing. Instead, digital personal property enables the same sort of private sharing that is easily possible with physical objects while still preventing worldwide mass distribution.

Living in a material world

It sounds almost futile: making digital goods "rivalrous" (after being taken, someone else is deprived of their use) when copying is the basic activity of digital devices. But the IEEE P1817 working group has a plan to do exactly this.

Engineer Paul Sweazey has been the driving force behind the idea, which we profiled a year ago when the IEEE first consented to study the idea. A few weeks ago, the idea graduated to working group status; the group will hold its first meeting July 14 in Santa Clara, California.

The "digital personal property" idea involves two major pieces: a title folder and a playkey. The title folder contains the content in question, it's encrypted, and it can be copied and passed around freely. To access the content inside, however, you'll need the playkey, which is delivered to the buyer of a digital media file and lives within "tamper-protected circuit" inside some device (computer, cell phone, router) or online at a playkey bank account. Controlling the playkey means that you control the media, and you truly own it, since no part of the system needs to phone home, and it imposes no restrictions on copying (except for those that arise naturally from fear of loss).

The playkey, unlike the title folder, can't be copied—but it can be moved. To give your friends and family access to the file in question, you can send them a copy but must also provide a link to the playkey. Under the DPP system, though, anyone who can access the playkey can also decide to move it to their own digital vault—in essence, anyone can take the content from you, and you would no longer have access to the media files in question if they did so.

According to the P1817 working group, this means that:

[P]roduct ownership is perpetual, and the tethers are severed that connect your purchases to their vendors. No one can restrict how you privately use or share them. However, because they are copyrighted, rightsholders retain the legal right to control public dissemination of their works. Just as a printed book can be lost if you share it publicly (i.e., with strangers), you must be careful to share only privately (i.e., with those you trust.) That's because anyone who shares either of your playkeys can take both of them and move them to his own device and his own online playkey bank! The availability and mobility of playkeys lets you electronically share, lend, borrow, give, take, donate, and resell digital property, just as you do with your physical possessions. And since playkeys remain singular, unique, and protected from counterfeiting, copyright holders know that your sharing will remain a private, non-public matter.

The entire system is predicated on the fear of loss; share with people you don't know, and at some point your playkey will probably be moved to someone else's control.

Making digital goods act like physical objects might sound like a bizarre step backward. Didn't we gain quite a lot with the shift to digital, non-rivalrous items? We certainly did, but Sweazey argues that a truly non-rivalrous system makes commerce too difficult, even impossible, and that we need to create ways for the digital world to mirror the constraints of the physical one.

If it sounds odd, consider that traditional DRM vendors have tried to do the same thing for more than a decade already. The digital personal property approach both removes tethers to corporate DRM servers and liberates sharing, and sounds like an effort to make DRM's basic approach palatable enough that it won't bother people.

Certainly, DRM alone has not proved enough to dissuade people from buying products, so long as it is remains out of their way most of the time; consider DVDs, Blu-ray discs, Apple's FairPlay, the Kindle's e-book DRM, console games, and Apple's App Store. If P1817 gets major support from vendors and rightsholders, it might prove acceptable to consumers, finally removing some of the ridiculous limitations on backups and format shifting that traditional DRM has eviscerated.

P1817 has a tough road ahead, and there's still something of the "cram the genie back in the bottle" to the whole approach. But those who want to make the scheme work are welcome at the group's meetings (PDF), which Sweazey sees as necessary "middle ground" in the DRM wars.

"I also understand that the Ars Technica readership leans heavily toward the 'all bits are free' direction," Sweazey noted in an e-mail, "but for us they provide a balance to the DRM defenders who think that 'the beatings should continue until morality improves.' There is a middle ground, and someone needs to enable it. We're volunteering."

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[so the key in the product. not going to work adn lead to more wmv key fakes to download bad stuff. if i share a paper book i paid for i do not lose the paper book. and they dont get any money if i paid for a used paper book. thinking about it... this is more of an attack on used software games. so that the makers can collect money for a new key. talking about console used games. yeah i see that happening. no thank you.

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