Automated DRM keeps spoiling the show, from the DNC to Mars

Robots aren't smart enough to decide if video or song is used lawfully; instead of trying to improve content monitoring software, we should look to ditch it

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Here's yet another example: Last month, according to TechDirt, NASA legitimately posted to YouTube a video of the Mars Rover landing. Within a few hours, YouTube automatically yanked the video, saying, "This video contains content from Scripps Local News, who has blocked it on copyright grounds."

"While it's not clear what happened, it seems likely that Scripps replayed the footage itself somewhere, and via some semi-automated process uploaded it to YouTube's ContentID, in which it claimed copyright on all its works," according to TechDirt. "But, of course, it was actually broadcasting public domain video from NASA. Unfortunately, YouTube can't recognize that Scripps is the latecomer here, rebroadcasting others' public domain material, and thus took down the material, only to have it corrected later."

It's not just Web robots: The AirPlay feature in Apple's OS X Mountain Lion similarly blocks the streaming of DVDs to TVs on the network, even though it is perfectly legal to play a commercial DVD on your TV, even if the DVD player happens to reside on your computer.

People talk of "fair use," but what they actually mean is that we all depend on the exercise of judgment in every decision. Near the bulls-eye of copyright where it was meant to apply -- the origination of works by specialist producers -- most people are clear what it means. But as legal scholar Lawrence Lessig eloquently explained in his excellent book "Free Culture," in the outer circles we have to make case-by-case judgments about what usage is fair and what usage is abuse. When a technologist embodies their or their employer's view of what's fair into a technology-enforced restriction, any potential for the exercise of discretion is turned from a scale to a step, and freedom is quantized. That quantization of discretion is always in the interest of the person forcing the issue.

These technology-imposed restrictions aren't just a problem for now. The natural consequence of having the outlook and business model of one person replace the spectrum of discretion is that scope for new interpretations of what's fair usage in the future is removed. Future uses of the content involved are reduced to just historic uses the content had at the time it was locked up in the technology wrapper (if that -- for example, digital books are generally not able to be loaned to friends, and even when they are, it's treated as a limited privilege).

The law may change, the outlook of society may mature, but the freedom to use that content according to the new view will never emerge from the quantized state the wrapper imposes. The code becomes the law, as Lessig again explains in his book "Code." Although the concept of "fair use" is potentially flexible and forward-looking, "historic use" is ossifying.

Thus the calls for better robots that understand fair use are misguided and pointless, a plot device that would fail the sniff test at the Hugo Awards, or in the wake of the Mars Rover landing or the DNC. Any technology that applies restrictions to text, music, video, or any other creative medium quantizes discretion and inherently dehumanizes culture. We don't need better robots; we need the reform of copyright so that it only applies to producers and not to consumers.

This story, "Automated DRM keeps spoiling the show, from the DNC to Mars," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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