Technical Protection Measures – When They Work And When They Are A Disaster

I’ve been writing a lot about Technical Protection Measures (TPM) aka Digital Rights Management (DRM) over the last nine months, but one thing I haven’t covered is why some sorts of TPM appear to work, at least partially, and others are obvious failures. Since some appear to work (partially) people who don’t understand the technology and the market, think that all TPM systems should work. They ignore the failures, and what the failures are telling us.

The previous articles are:

1 – An invitation to Doctor Ficsor to explain the value to the citizens of Canada in ratifying the WIPO Internet Treaties

2 – Dr. Ficsor is wrong about many things – why should we believe him?

3 – Doctor Ficsor is wrong again

4 – James Gannon Presentation – Copyright Viewed By A Lawyer – Correct Legally But Wrong – Part 1

5 – James Gannon Presentation – Copyright Viewed By A Lawyer – Correct Legally But Wrong – Part 2

6 – James Gannon Presentation – Copyright Viewed By A Lawyer – Correct Legally But Wrong – Part 3

7 – Why Is Michael Geist In Favour Of Digital Rights Management/Technical Protection Measures?

8 – Digital Right Management and/or Technical Protection Measures Cause Climate Change

9 – Bill C-32 – The New Canadian Copyright Act

Disclosure: I filed a submission during the Canadian Copyright Consultation calling for the banning of Technical Protection Measures, a stand that was somewhat less than popular in many quarters. The reason that I did this is because I believe that the adoption of TPM in Canadian Works will cause widespread damage to Canadian Culture. My stance, and my refusal to back down, is one of the reasons that James Moore, the Canadian Culture Minister, has blocked me on Twitter.

Based on my dealings with James, I’ve come to the conclusion that he is either clueless, or that he has his orders, and he is going to follow them through come hell or high water. For those not familiar with Canadian Politics, the current leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, Stephen Harper, who is our current Prime Minister, is a reputed to be a control freak who runs the Conservative Party like a Kindergarten class. Of course this doesn’t mean that James Moore doesn’t believe in what he was doing when he drafted Bill C-32, or that either of the suppositions above is correct. There may other reasons that I haven’t thought of yet because of a lack of data (it has been reported by Michael Geist that the PMO ordered the ministers involved to ‘satisfy the United States’ – PDF of paper here).

Second Disclosure: As a programmer I was responsible for designing a couple of TPM/DRM systems about fifteen years ago. While I’m not the world’s biggest expert on designing TPM/DRM systems, I understand the basics of how they work, and why they are generally ineffective. If you don’t believe that they are ineffective take a look on The Pirate Bay at all of the software torrents that contain cracked versions of the software (by cracked we mean software that has had the TPM/DRM inactivated), or contain Serial Number generators (you don’t need to inactivate the TPM/DRM if you can devise a way of generating legitimate serial numbers)

Why Does TPM/DRM Appear to Work?

In some cases TPM/DRM does appear to function as it’s advocates claim. There are specific reasons that this happens:

1 – The product only works on one platform, such as a game console

2 – The TPM/DRM is ineffective enough that it doesn’t cause problems for the consumer

3 – What you are producing is something that the consumer has no choice in purchasing

4 – The product offers better value than the preceeding product

Considering item 1, if a game only works on a Playstation 3 (PS3) because of architectural issues, copies will also only work on a PS3. Since the vast majority of people don’t understand how microprocessors work, the lack of PS3 emulators on the market, or PS3 clones that are able to run PS3 games, is mistaken for effective TPM/DRM.

For an explanation why this is so, while I cannot claim to be the world’s greatest expert, I do have some experience of programming in Assembly Language. Assembly Language is a mnemonic system to enable a programmer to work directly with the processor itself. While most current Microprocessor operating systems are written using ‘higher level’ languages, Assembly is often still used for the real basics. If you own a PC compatible computer you may see a ‘BIOS’ screen, the BIOS or ‘Basic Input Output System’ is usually written in Assembly. Assembly is also used in specialty applications, your Microwave oven controller may use it for example. Assembly is the most powerful way to program, however it’s also the most difficult. It requires an intimate understanding of how the processor works, and is processor specific. Most software today is written using higher level, easier to understand languages, which means that it is easier to make the software work on more than one system (for example the excellent Videolan Player is available for Microsoft Windows, Mac OSX, GNU/Linux, and a wide variety of other operating systems, used on a wide variety of processors).

When you run an assembly language program through the Assembler, which is the program that turns Assembly Language into the appropriate sets of ONES and ZEROS for your processor (seriously – that is all that is in any program, a lot of ONES and ZEROS), you end up with a an executable file. Since each type of processor uses a different variation on Assembly Language, and has different features, an executable file designed to run on a Cell processor will not run on an X86 processor. Also porting an Assembly Language program from one computer to another is a difficult task, because of the differences between processors.

By comparison, the Java language was specifically designed to be capable of running on a wide range of microprocessors, running a wide range of operating systems. This means a programmer using Java can target a far wider range of customers than a programmer using Assembly Language, however the Java programmer will not be able to work as closely with the processor. Each language has advantages for certain situations.

Since the PS3 uses a modified IBM CELL processor, and your desktop computer probably uses some variation on an X86 processor (for example my laptop has an Intel Core 2 Duo), the two processors do not use the same Assembly Language, and what will run on one won’t run on the other. At least not without a lot of work, and usually a super powerful processor. You can use an emulator if you have a powerful enough processor, for example the VICE emulator for the antique Commodore C64 computer. But as I said, this requires a lot of processing power. The C64 computer ran at 1 mhz, and for VICE to emulate it well the required system is a Pentium 2 computer running at 333 mhz (call it 333 times as fast – it’s actually somewhat faster than that) or something more powerful.

Therefore to emulate the powerful Cell Processor based PS3 using an X86 processor based system, would take a very powerful computer, more powerful than anything available on the market at the present time. Seriously. The Cell Processor in the PS3 is a really powerful computer chip. There was actually one super-computer built using PS3 systems. Because of that there are no emulators currently available.

Since other systems are unable to run PS3 games at the present time, it appears to the uneducated that the PS3 TPM/DRM works reasonably well. You don’t expect to be able to play a PS3 game on your Mac or PC after all, so it’s not an inconvenience to not be able to do so.

Considering item 2, Digital Video Discs (DVDs) are protected by the Content Scramble System (CSS). The Content Scramble System is an example of an ineffective TPM/DRM. It was first broken in 1999, and later broken using brute force methods (DVD-CSS uses a 40 bit encryption key. Using a brute force approach a modern computer with a dual core processor can break the encryption by tossing numbers at it in seconds).

This means that DVDs can be played on almost any platform, irregardless of whether there is a legal player available. Programs such as Handbrake can be used so that you can shift video from a DVD to your computer hard drive for conveniences sake (for example if you need to travel, and do not want to carry your valuable DVD collection with you.

Breaking the TPM/DRM on a DVD is a trivial act. There are so many illegal software packages (at least they are illegal in the United States) that finding one takes very little effort. Also both Microsoft and Apple have licensed DVD-CSS, so any Apple computer with a DVD drive, or any PC running Microsoft Windows with a DVD drive, can play a DVD. And there are hundreds of brands of DVD player. Some game machines can also play DVDs, such as the Sony Playstation 2 and Playstation 3 (our first DVD player was a Playstation 2, which we still have), the Microsoft X-Box 360. We have three stand alone DVD players, a Playstation 3 console, two Playstation 2 consoles, seven laptops, and four desktop computers in our house, all of which have the capability to play DVDs. I generally don’t use my MacBook to play DVDs, I prefer using our upscaling DVD player and large flat screen TV (it’s easier on my eyes), but my wife and daughter both regularly watch DVDs on their MacBooks.

Because of the ability to use DVDs on so many different pieces of hardware, and of course the fact that it is so trivial to break the protection, many people aren’t even aware that there is any TPM/DRM system in use on DVDs. This makes DVDs very valuable, because of the ability to enjoy your favorite movie or TV show anywhere, anytime, including sitting on a park bench, or on an airplane.

Another example is the Fairplay DRM Apple developed for use in their ITunes music store. The Fairplay system allowed you to keep copies of your music on more than one computer, or on your IPod music player. It also allowed you to burn your music to a writable Compact Disc (CD). Since Compact Discs don’t use TPM/DRM, you could then ‘rip’ your Compact Disc, and end up with music which had the TPM/DRM stripped out.

Attempts by other companies to sell music using the Windows Media DRM system failed, because of the excessive restrictions imposed by the record labels. Consumers quickly learned that buying from Apple was a painless and pleasant experience, while buying from a store which used the Windows Media DRM meant that you got music which you couldn’t enjoy when you wanted to, where you wanted to, and sales of music which used the Windows Media DRM tanked.

Considering item 3, say for example if you owned a grocery store, and the next nearest grocery store was fifty miles away. Under those circumstances it would be far more expensive for your customers to go elsewhere. If you were charging $4.00 for a five pound bag of sugar, and your distant competition was charging $3.00 per bag, by buying from you the customer is seeing a significant cost saving, as it would cost your customers a lot more than $1.00 for fuel to visit your competitor (never mind how much time they would save).

However if your customer needed to visit the area where your competitor’s store is, say to visit relatives, it would make sense for them to visit your competitor, and buy sugar there, since they have already used the resources to get there. So TPM/DRM can appear to work when the customer has no choice about where to buy.

Of course entertainment isn’t like food. Food is a necessity of life, entertainment is nice, but you can do without it, or create your own, so there are no examples that I know of where TPM/DRM has worked because the consumer had option but to buy.

Considering Item 4, TPM/DRM can also appear to work when the new form offers significant advantages over the older form. When you compare VHS tapes to DVDs, DVDs are smaller (easier to store), more robust (the electromagnetic tape used in VHS was fragile), and gave far better picture quality. What you lost was the ability to record, which apparently was not all that important to many people.

Oh, and you soon had the option of playing DVDs on more than just one platform. You couldn’t stick a VHS tape into your computer and play it, but you could use your computer to play a DVD. Because DVDs offered so many benefits, widespread adoption was extremely quick. If DVDs hadn’t have offered all of those benefits over VHS tapes, the changeover either wouldn’t have occurred, or would have taken far longer.

And of course DVDs are less expensive to manufacture than VHS tapes, which is why there is such a large selection of good quality entertainment (I picked up a DVD containing some absolutely wonderful Warner Brothers cartoons at the local drug store for $5.00 Canadian, which is a fantastic deal for something I will watch over and over again).

Why Doesn’t TPM/DRM really work?

In other cases TPM/DRM doesn’t work as intended, and there are specific reasons that this happens:

There’s three major reasons why TPM/DRM doesn’t work.

1) All types of TPM/DRM can be broken

2) Restrictions that inconvenience the consumer drive the consumer away

3) The competition offers a better alternative

Considering item 1, this is something that non-programmers have a real problem with. Because programming is a mystery to them, the idea that someone can modify things to make them work differently isn’t readily apparent. To a programmer, it’s as clear as day.

Let’s look at some examples. About seven or eight years ago I did something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I took a course in water color painting. When I walked in on the first night, I didn’t have a clue how to do anything with water colors. Oh, sure, I’d seen a lot them (I love used to love going to the Art Gallery of Ontario before my leg got really bad). But I didn’t understand how it worked. By the end of the course, eight weeks later, I was able to produce a half dozen paintings, with varying levels of skill. Sure, I’m no Bob Ross (Bob Ross used to do a TV show called ‘The Joy Of Painting), but they looked pretty good to me, and I had a great time learning how to do it.

It’s the same thing with programming. It’s really not that difficult to learn, though most people will never become super proficient at it (and my painting ability will never rival Vincent Van Gogh). Most people don’t know just how relatively simple programming is. Oh, if you are working on a huge project (say for example putting together Microsoft Windows) it can get really complex because of the shear size, but the basics are fairly simple. In fact programming is similar to making up a new recipe. You need certain things added, in a certain order, within a certain time to do certain things, and if you want to do something different, you may need to moves some things around, and possibly add or remove something else.

You can consider basic programming to be similar to the math that you learned in Primary School, while building a complete computer operating system would be closer to an engineer working out the stresses which your car undergoes when it hits a wall. But both start off with 1+1=2.

This is why there is such a huge push for anti-circumvention legislation, like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Many content distributors bought into the ‘TPM/DRM will prevent copying’ argument, and now that they’ve found that this isn’t true, they are panicking. To maximize profits they want to resell you everything you’ve ever bought, just like they were able to when the change over from Cassette Tapes to Compact Discs happened, or when the changeover from VHS Tapes to Digital Video Discs occurred. They would like to be able to charge you for moving your music from a Compact Disc to your IPod, or for streaming a video from one computer to another. They don’t understand that if they manage to do this, it will kill their sales. What is the use of buying something that you cannot use?

Considering item 2, what happens when you don’t treat a customer with care and attention? Easy, you end up with an upset customer. Say you needed to take a hotel room for the night, and it was infested with cockroaches. You’d probably complain to management. What if you ordered a steak medium rare, and it arrived well done? I’ve seen people walk out of restaurants when the food order was really wrong. Would you consider going back? Depends on how upset you are, and how badly you were treated.

What does this have to do with TPM/DRM? A lot. When Wal-Mart opened an online music store using Windows Media DRM, one of the problems that they had was that the TPM/DRM was so restrictive that it was driving the consumers nuts. Wal-Mart wasn’t supplying the customer what they wanted, which was music that they could listen to when they wanted to, where they wanted too, and their competitor Apple was.

Or think of the Blu-Ray copy protection system. If you don’t keep your Blu-Ray player connected to the internet, so that it can get the newest software updates, you can’t always play the newest movies. If you don’t have an internet connection, well, you have a problem.

And then of course there’s the problems with playing existing media, if a software update works in unexpected ways. There has been several instances when a software update made older Blu-Ray discs unplayable. While fixes were later issued, the inconvenience of being unable to watch what you want, when you want, frustrated a lot of consumers. After  all, that’s the whole reason for buying a Blu-Ray or DVD disk.

Considering item 3, with the wide adoption of large screen television sets, the DVD player manufacturers designed and started to manufacture and sell upscaling DVD players. These players took the standard DVD quality image, and made it cleaner and clearer on larger screens, for far less than the cost of a Blu-Ray player. Since DVDs are less expensive than Blu-Ray discs, and many people already had large libraries of DVDs, upscaling DVD players have sold really well. Oh, Blu-Ray players do provide a superior picture, but it’s not enough better to make the investment worthwhile.

The image quality with an upscaling DVD player is so good that with most smaller ‘large screen’ television sets, say those under fifty inches, it comes very close to matching Blu-Ray image quality. Remember that I said that DVDs were less expensive than Blu-Ray discs? I’ve started to see Blu-Ray titles in the bargain bins, while the same title in DVD is still selling at full price. At present Blu-Ray just doesn’t add enough value to out compete DVD. Not yet. Maybe not ever. The VHS to DVD switch over occurred relatively quickly. The DVD to Blu-Ray switch over appears to have stalled, and may never restart.

And of course they consider ‘pirated’ material as competition. Many companies claim that they can’t compete with piracy. Curiously Apple is able to do so, and does so very well. Apple has sold billions of music tracks, and will continue to sell billions of tracks, because they are giving the customer what they want, even though the customer could probably find the same material on a Torrent Site or on a Peer to Peer network.

Or consider Baen books. Baen is one of David Weber’s publishers, and every David Weber hardcover book from Baen comes with a compact disc, that contains electronic copies of all of David’s books published by Baen. The only restriction mentioned is that you are not free to sell the disc. According to the MPAA/RIAA/CRIA/BPI, etc. this is a suicidal business model, but Baen has been doing it for years, and David Weber regularly makes the New York Times bestseller list. Disclosure – while I’ve never meet David Weber, we know several people in common. I am a big fan of David’s books, and have bought every single book he has ever written, so yes, this is a plug. Go out and read some of his stuff, it’s damned good. Oh, and I have a stack of David Weber CDRom discs here 🙂

Again, it all comes down to value. Baen also has a Free Library, where you can download a wide range of books, written by many popular authors. This is valuable to readers who want to check out an author to see if they’ll like the authors books. It is valuable to Baen because if you know that you like what an author has written, you will buy more of his or her books.

Baen also often publishes the first five or six chapters of books online, before they are published. Again, this is valuable to readers, because they can check out the book, and see if it is going to be something they want to buy. A good example is Pat (P.C.) Hodgell. Pat has had a small but loyal following for years. When Pat moved to Baen, they talked to her about putting the first five chapters of Bound In Blood online, and she agreed. The result was that Bound in Blood sold out in record time! By putting the first five chapters online, Baen gave her much needed exposure. Disclosure – Pat is on my Live Journral friends list, she’s a really nice person, and I really enjoy her writing. I also recommend it to everyone who will listen. She is in the process of finishing another novel, which I can’t wait to read.

In closing, TPM/DRM partially work when they don’t inconvenience the consumer. I say partially, because any weak TPM/DRM is easily broken, in which case it is useless. Strong TPM/DRM doesn’t work. It causes too many problems for the consumer, and the consumer’s reaction is to walk away, and not come back. Therefore TPM/DRM isn’t the solution to low sales, it’s the cause. This may seem counter-intuitive, as after all, why would you buy something you could get for free?

Simple. It all comes down to value. Why would I want to buy something I don’t like? Easy, I don’t. And I get damned mad if someone tricks me into wasting money. I remember when I’ve been ripped off, and I avoid dealing with that company, or artist any more. TPM/DRM is a method of trying to force the customer to buy, no matter how bad the product is.

Good products that have TPM/DRM sell in spite of it. A good example being DVDs, sales of which really took off AFTER THE TPM/DRM WAS BROKEN. Assured that they could use their purchases as they wished, consumers have bought billions and billions of DVDs, helping to drive video production industry sales to record highs.

At the same time, Compact Disc sales have slumped. While Compact Discs do not use TPM/DRM, the current offerings from the RIAA member companies are so tepid, that they are driving customers away. The demise of the neighborhood record store, which the big labels contributed to, has also made finding good music even harder. The large box retailers like Best Buy and Wal-Mart stock only a limited selection, and their staffs are not well enough trained in what they are selling to help the customer find new artists (if you don’t believe me, go and check them out – it’s pretty sad). And of course the ease and convenience of the ITunes store, with it’s enormous selection, and it’s well designed recommendation software make shopping online far more satisfying than shopping in a big box store.

In short, the biggest problem facing the content distributors and artists at the present time isn’t piracy, it’s TPM/DRM. The promise of TPM/DRM has given the industry a false sense of security. They don’t see that the real problem is their product. Especially in a recession, consumers want and need value for their money. They can’t afford to buy twenty compact discs to find one that they like, and they won’t, but they’ll happily spend money on product that they enjoy. This is why when the third in the Toy Story franchise was recently released, it has done well in theaters, while things like Waterworld and Heaven’s Gate lost millions.

The way to increase sales is to provide your customer something of value. When the Japanese car manufacturers first started selling cars in North America, the North American companies didn’t take them seriously. The Japanese car companies delivered value to the consumer that the North American car companies were not willing to provide at the time, and captured a significant portion of the market. The same thing happened in the motorcycle industry, where the Japanese companies wiped out most of the North American and European manufacturers by providing a superior product at a great price.

The Entertainment Industry often claims that pirates think that everything should be free, and they’ve convinced a portion of the artists of this, which is wrong. To quote Mike Masnick from

Look, we all want content creators to get paid, we just think they should do it with smart business models, rather than by restricting content, pissing off fans and running to the government for greater protectionism.

Today the smart content creators, like the Tecno-Brega artists, are using a wider range of models to increase sales. Artists like Tom Smith (disclosure, I’ve known Tom for close to twenty years) use multiple methods of making sales. And they are making sales, and are doing BETTER THAN THEY EVER HAVE BEFORE.

One of the comments that James Moore made to me several months ago was that if  ‘artists didn’t want TPM/DRM applied to their works, they should deal with a different distributor who doesn’t use it.’ James conveniently ignored the issue of systems, like the Blu-Ray TPM/DRM where opt-out provisions were promised, but still have not been delivered. So how does this deliver the artist choice, and how does it deliver value to the consumer?

Meanwhile, sites like VODO deliver good value. I love Vodo. It has introduced me to some very talented creators, who I would never have heard of otherwise. Tonight I plan to sit down and watch ‘The Yes Men Fix The World.’ Yes, it’s a free download, and it looks really funny.


Wayne Borean

Wednesday September 1, 2010


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