Will Copy Protection Ever Work?

An interesting piece news of last week, something that’s almost certainly passed under the radar of many due to it’s rather dry appearance, is that the fifth working draft for a Digital Rights Management (DRM) extension to HTML5 was released. And with heavyweight support from Microsoft, Google and Netflix (amongst others) it appears to be not far short of being a done deal.

However, as Bruce Lawson highlighted in his blog yesterday, there are numerous obstacles to overcome with DRM and it is not without some considerable drawbacks. One thing that particularly springs to my mind is – for video, text and audio – it is not unfeasible to record the output in a similar way to how you might have taped radio shows back in the old days. It’s very difficult to stop someone from copying something if they’re determined to do so. Although, to be fair to those involved, it doesn’t appear that the ambitions of the HTML Working Group extend to abolishing piracy entirely.

With the UK’s economy becoming ever more reliant on the web, people’s ability to protect their own creative output against infringement will become increasingly more important. Or, more accurately, to maintain or improve their source of income from their creative output. It’s not necessarily the same thing. For example, newspapers still (presumably) make money from their online offerings, even though automated content-pinching sites are a very real threat to the content they offer, and subsequently the advertising revenues from those articles.

Personally, I’m not sure that there’ll ever be a solution. Talented programmers like Jon Lech Johansen, who decoded the copy protection on DVDs and Apple’s AAC audio codec, are unlikely to get any less talented or determined as time goes by. Demonising piracy hasn’t worked in the past as in the overwhelming majority of cases the ‘pirate’ doesn’t see themselves as doing something particularly immoral, and in some cases see themselves as the complete opposite.

Microsoft, Google et al will certainly have their work cut out if they’re going to achieve what they want to.