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Can digital rights management and the open web coexist?

Chris Minnick and Ed Tittel | May 29, 2014
The Netflix-backed Encrypted Media Extensions (EME) proposal, and recent revelations that requirements for DRM in HTML5 are confidential, have generated furor among advocates of the Open Web. Let's cut through the hyperbole.

Digital Rights Management (DRM) describes a class of technologies designed to prevent unauthorized copying and playback of digital media. Content providers that favor DRM claim that it's necessary to prevent copyright infringement. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the Free Software Foundation (FSF) claim that DRM is an anti-competitive practice that more often inconveniences legitimate users of such media.

The fight over openness vs. protection of copyright holders has been a contentious issue for as long as digital media has been around. Owing largely to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, powerful content creators such as movie studios and television networks currently hold the upper hand.

The DMCA, which became law in the U.S. in 1998, made it illegal to disable DRM systems or to spread information about how to disable them. Groups opposed to DRM claim that it doesn't work and only gives corporations control over how people can use content, playback devices and computers after they've been legitimately purchased.

DRM's main problem: It makes it impossible to let users play digital media and also prevent its reproduction. Even something as crude as pointing a camera at a video playing on a computer screen defeats DRM, and there's really no way to prevent that. More sophisticated tools for defeating DRM exist, of course - but, thanks to the DMCA, it's probably illegal for us to tell you about them.

Proponents Say EME Protects Embedded Web Content in HTML5 Era

The latest development in the battle over DRM is a draft W3C standard put forwarded by Netflix, Microsoft and Google called Encrypted Media Extensions. EME describes an application programming interface (API) that lets Web applications interact with content delivery modules. These modules may be built into Web browsers, operating systems, computer firmware or hardware, or they may be distributed separately. Content delivery modules work like plug-ins, such as Adobe Flash and Microsoft Silverlight, to enable specific capabilities in Web browsers. They are distributed and then must be downloaded to render certain content formats for display.

In that they are external to the browser and interact with the browser in a standardized way, content delivery modules actually aren't that different from browser extensions, or plug-ins. The difference is that they interact with the browser in a specific way for a specific purpose - namely, playback of media that may or may not be encrypted.

According to its sponsors, EME is necessary because the HTML5 video and audio elements, which enable progressive playback in Web browsers without plug-ins, currently lack means to prevent users from downloading, editing, inspecting or copying embedded Web content.

Opponents of DRM argue that, except for content provided through plug-ins, the Web has always been and must always be open. The Web succeeds because users and developers are able to link, share, download, view source and even mash up content. The Web is fundamentally free and open by design to - as the W3C says in its mission statement - make the benefits of the Web "available to all people, whatever their hardware, software, network infrastructure, native language, culture, geographical location or physical or mental ability."


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