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07 September 2009, 09:21

Linux and Digital Rights Management (DRM)

The principles of open source software and the film and record companies' perceived need to control how film, video and audio recordings are consumed seem incompatible. This article explores the issues.

by Terry Relph-Knight

Most personal computer owners find it convenient to be able to play various types of recreational media – Audio CDs, DVD and Blu-ray movies – on their machines. Even at work, multimedia video and audio presentations have their place. Over the years Windows users have come to expect that whatever the latest media format is, a Windows machine will be able to play it. This is not the case with Linux. Until the launch of Blu-ray in 2006 (we won't mention HD-DVD) Linux had just about managed to keep up; it has the ability to play audio CDs and can play DVDs either by using an 'illegal' file containing cracked keys, separate from the player software or with a commercially licensed closed source player. The Blu-ray format represents more of a problem. Why? The answer is the latest in DRM.

Optical disc with lock
Source: cc rebopper (Noah Hall)

Digital Rights Management (DRM) – What is it?

Digital Rights Management (not to be confused with the Linux DRM – Direct Rendering Manager – kernel library) is a blanket term that refers to any means of digital protection built in to media (hardware and software) designed to physically control how a digital version of a work is used.

The most prominent use of DRM is to protect commercial audio tracks and films from being copied. The infamous case of Napster and peer-to-peer music downloads made headlines and brought the issues of copyright protection of music, movies and DRM to wider public attention, so DRM is often thought of with this rather limited association. It is more accurate to say that the concept of DRM may be applied to any work in digital form which is copyright and in some way digitally protected.

For quite some time, proprietary software companies, such as Microsoft, have been using various methods of DRM (unlocking using serial numbers, call and response unlocking via the internet, generating fingerprint checksums to lock the install to one machine and limiting the number of repeated installs) to protect their products against copying, but this has almost been obscured by the cloud of publicity surrounding record and film anti-piracy measures.

DRM on the offensive

Due, they say, to huge losses in revenue resulting from piracy, the big media groups have seized the opportunities afforded by digital technology and rather than rely on the reactive application of copyright law, have gone on the offensive. The big media groups have leveraged their position as content providers to demand that software and hardware manufacturers implement active copy protection measures in their products. All of these measures are based on secrecy and rely on encryption and on protection of the data path. Early attempts at copy protection were not very effective and, in some cases, actually caused problems; this served only to alienate the consumer.

The main concern seems not to be copying by criminal bootleggers, but copying by ordinary consumers; this is apparently seen as amounting to a larger revenue loss. For this purpose copy protection schemes do not need to be perfect, they just need to make copying difficult enough to deter the majority. Large scale criminal bootleggers are perhaps more sophisticated and therefore more difficult to block.

Next: A double-edged sword

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