I have a well-publicized love-hate opinion of Digital Rights Management. DRM can solve some security problems but will fail outright if applied in other areas, most notably consumer media protection. I remain an advocate and believe that an Information Centric approach to data security has a future, and I am continually looking for new uses for this model. Still, few things get me started on a rant like someone who says that DRM is going to secure consumer media, and DRM in the Cloud is predicting just that.

New box, same old smelly fish. Be it audio or video, DRM secured content can be quite secure at rest. But when someone actually wants to watch that video is when things get interesting. At some point in the process the video content must leave its protective shell of encryption, and then digital must become analog. Since this data is meaningless to someone unless they can view it or use it, at some point this transition must take place! It is at this transition point from raw data to consumable media when the content is most vulnerable- the delivery point. DRM & Information Centric Security are fantastic for keeping information secret when the people who have access to it want to keep it a secret. They are not as effective when there is a recipient who wants to violate that trust, and fail outright when that recipient has control of the software and hardware used for presentation.

I freely admit that if the vendor controls the hardware, the software, and distribution, it can be made economically unfeasible for the average person to steal. And I can hypothesize about how DRM and media distribution can be coupled with cloud computing, but most of these examples involve using vendor approved software, in a vendor approved way, over a reliable high speed connection, using a ‘virtual’ copy that never resides in its entirety on the device that plays it. And a vendor approved device helps a whole lot with making piracy more difficult, but DRM in the Cloud claims universal device support, so that is probably out of the question. But at the end of the day, someone with the time and inclination to pirate the data will do so. Whether they solder connections onto the system bus or reverse engineer the decoder chips, they can and will get unfettered access- quite possibly just for the fun of doing it!

The business justification for this effort is odd as well. If the goal is to re-create the success of DVD as stated in the article, then do what DVD did: twice the audio & video quality, far more convenience at a lower cost. Simple. Those success factors gave DVDs one of the fastest adoption curves in history. So why should an “Internet eco-system that re-creates the user experience and commercial success of the DVD” actually recreate the success of DVD? The vendors are not talking about lower price, higher quality, and convenience, so what is the recipe for success? They are talking about putting their content online and addressing how confused people are about buying and downloading! This tells me that the media owners think that they will be successful if they move their stuff onto the Internet and make DRM invisible. If you think just moving content onto the Internet alone makes a successful business model, tell me how much fun it would be to use Google Maps without search, directions and or aerial photos- it’s just maps taken online, right? Further, I don’t know anyone who is confused about downloading; in fact I would say most people have that pretty much down cold. I do know lots of people who are pissed off about DRM being an invasive impediment to normal use; or the fact they cannot buy the music they want; or things like Sony’s rootkit and various underhanded and quasi-criminal tactics used by the industry; and the rising cost of, well, just about everything. Not to get all Friedrich Hayek here, but letting spontaneous market forces determine what is efficient, useful, and desirable based upon perceived value of the offering is a far better way to go about this. This corporate desire to synthetically recreate the success of DVDs is missing several critical elements, most notably, anything to make customers happy.

The “Cloud Based DRM” technology approach may be interesting and new, but it will fail in exactly the same way, for exactly the same reasons previous DRM attempts have. If they want to succeed, they need to abandon DRM and provide basic value to the customer. Otherwise, DRM, along with the rest of the flawed business assumptions, looks like a spectacular way to waste time and money.