Digital Rights Management, DRM, has been driving consumers crazy. The rights holders' attempt to protect their ownership interest in music, text, whatever, DRM has been a consumers' nightmare. If you have been foolish enough to sign up for Microsoft's Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) program, you have had a personal, up-close encounter with DRM. According to a Sept. 4, 2009 story at TG Daily, Microsoft has now been hit with a class action law suit over the way it offered WGA as a "high priority update" without any hint that it was an anti-piracy program entirely for the benefit of Microsoft itself. The software collected and communicated consumers' IP addresses and their servers' IP addresses and sent that information back to Microsoft on a daily basis, in violation of anti-spyware and consumer protection statutes. In addition, WGA has been pretty much permanent once you installed it. Under pressure, Microsoft has issued some instructions on how to remove it.
Since DRM is getting such an awful odor, some folks have been trying to solve the problem of protecting the legitimate concerns rights holders have in their ownership, without unduly annoying the users of the products. Ars Technica has a story about one new theory. Digital Personal Property is the brainchild of a study group at IEEE (pronounced Eye-triple-E; it used to be the acronym for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. Today, the organization's scope of interest has expanded into so many related fields, that it is simply referred to by the letters I-E-E-E). According to the article, the group decided to turn the thinking around and treat the problem, not as "digital rights management," but as "consumer rights management."
Digital personal property (DPP) is an attempt to make consumers treat digital media like physical objects. For instance, you might loan your car to a friend, a family member, or a neighbor. You might do so on many different occasions and for different lengths of time. But you are unlikely to leave the car out front of your house with the keys in it and a sign on it saying, "Take me!" If you did, you might never see the vehicle again.This makes an interesting scenario for libraries. If publishers decided to adopt this for digital books, for instance, and we had an Inter-library loan request... Or we simply were preparing to lend the book to a patron. How would the library manage the digital material? Would we be able to set up policies, agreements and procedures that would protect the library's investment in the title or subscription, and allow us to lend the item, being certain to get it back?
It's that the ability to lose control over property that is central to the DPP system. DPP files are encrypted. They can be freely copied and distributed to anyone, but here's the trick: anyone who can view your content can also "steal" it irrevocably. The simple addition of a way to lose content instantly leads consumers to set up a "circle of trust" that can be as wide as they like but will not extend to total strangers on the Internet.
How it works
Digital content lends itself easily to the creation of identical copies, so crafting a system in which digital content can be "stolen" is trickier than it might sound. The idea is to make it a "rivalrous good," one that, after being taken, deprives someone else of something.
DPP hopes to do this by relying on two major pieces: a title folder and a playkey. The title folder contains the content in question, it's encrypted, and it can be copied and passed around freely. To access the content inside, however, you'll need the playkey, which is delivered to the buyer of a digital media file and lives within "tamper-protected circuit" inside some device (computer, cell phone, router) or online at a playkey bank account. Controlling the playkey means that you control the media, and you truly own it, since no part of the system needs to phone home, and it imposes no restrictions on copying (except for those that arise naturally from fear of loss).
The playkey, unlike the title folder, can't be copied—but it can be moved. To give your friends and family access to the file in question, you can send them a copy but must also provide a link to the playkey. Under the DPP system, though, anyone who can access the playkey can also decide to move it to their own digital vault—in essence, anyone can take the content from you, and you would no longer have access to the media files in question if they did so.
I think we might be in very big trouble here.