DRM sinks its fangs into HTML5, with help from Netflix, Google, and Microsoft

Backed by new allies, content cartel revives specter of digital rights management in a battle over emerging HTML5 standards

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To me, this battle seems more symbolic than anything -- a "we know DRM is going to happen regardless, but we shouldn't encourage it" kind of thing.

I think any reasonable person will agree that people who spend vast amounts of time and money creating original content should be able to make a decent living from it. They should be allowed to take steps to secure it from thieves. You own a candy store, you should be able to put a lock on the front and back doors to keep people from stealing your Jujubes.

The problem is that DRM has been thoroughly abused by the content cartel. They've made all the rules, and law-abiding consumers who've purchased legal copies can go screw themselves. It has gone well beyond putting locks on the doors of the candy store; they've treated every customer like a shoplifter, forcing them to empty their pockets on the way out to prove they aren't trying to smuggle out the Good-n-Plentys.

DRM done wrong

Take DVDs, for example. Jon Johansen wasn't trying to bring Hollywood to its knees when he wrote the code that broke copy protection on DVDs in 1999. He wasn't planning to rip his entire movie collection and post it on KaZaa for the world to download. All he wanted was to work around the regional encoding that kept him from watching DVDs he legally purchased in the United States and elsewhere in his native Norway. He was trying to make DRM manageable for humans. For that he had to fight a five-year court battle (which he won).

Likewise, Real Networks wasn't trying to bust up the movie monopolies when it introduced its short-lived RealDVD software in 2008. It was trying to provide consumers an easy way to make legal backups of their DVDs in case the brittle plastic disc they paid $20 for gets a crack in it. But Hollywood's legal vultures descended upon the company from a great height. Within weeks RealDVD could no longer be sold; within two years it was dead.

The problem isn't DRM per se. The problem is that these guys are jerks.

What we need is digital rights management with a human face, like an open source, royalty-free codec that offers a balance between the rights of the consumer and the rights of the content owner. Codecs like this already exist, but none that meet the standards of the W3C, according to Cnet -- so let's build a better one.

Or maybe we urge content creators to adopt the Louis CK model. Charge a reasonable price for original content, make it DRM free, assume a certain percentage of people will "steal" it or otherwise try to butter it across the InterWebs, but trust that most people will do the right thing and pay for it, because a) it's easier, and b) it's the right thing.

DRM sucks. It may be a necessary evil. But it doesn't have to drain the lifeblood from the Web.

Is DRM evil? And if so, how can we thrust a stake through its heart? Post your vampire-killing techniques below or email me: cringe@infoworld.com.

This article, "DRM sinks its fangs into HTML5, with help from Netflix, Google, and Microsoft," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

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