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Digital rights management

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Soulskill

centre21 writes "Having been on Slashdot for several years, I've seen a lot of articles concerning DRM. What's most interesting to me are the number of comments condemning DRM outright and calling for the abolishing DRM with all due prejudice. The question I have for the community: is there ever a time when DRM is justified? My focus here is the aspect of how DRM protects the rights of content creators (aka, artists) and helps to prevent people freely distributing their works and with no compensation. How would those who are opposed to DRM ensure that artists will get just compensation for their works if there are no mechanisms to prevent someone from simply digitally copying a work (be it music, movie or book) and giving it away to anyone who wants it? Because, in my eyes, when people stop getting paid for what they do, they'll stop doing it. Many of my friends and family are in the arts, and let me assure you, one of the things they fear most isn't censorship, it's (in their words), 'Some kid freely distributing my stuff and eliminating my source of income.' And I can see their point. So I reiterate, to those who vehemently oppose DRM, is there ever a time where DRM can be a force for good, or can they offer an alternative that would prevent the above from happening?"

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tommy refenes sm.jpgBy Tommy Refenes

I think I can safely say that Super Meat Boy has been pirated at least 200,000 times. We are closing in on 2 million sales and assuming a 10% piracy to sales ratio does not seem unreasonable. As a forward thinking developer who exists in the present, I realize and accept that a pirated copy of a digital game does not equate to money being taken out of my pocket. Team Meat shows no loss in our year end totals due to piracy and neither should any other developer.

For the sake of argument, some of those people that did pirate Super Meat Boy could have bought the game if piracy didn't exist but there is no actual way to calculate that lost revenue. It is impossible to know with certainty the intentions of people. With the SimCity fiasco and several companies trying to find new ways to combat piracy and stating piracy has negatively affected their bottom line I wonder if they've taken the time to accurately try to determine what their losses are due to piracy.

My first job outside my parents cabinet shop was at KMart. KMart, like countless other retailers, calculates loss by counting purchased inventory and matching it to sales. Loss is always built into the budget because it is inevitable. Loss could come from items breaking, being stolen, or being defective. If someone broke a light bulb, that was a calculable loss. If someone returned a blender for being defective, it wasn't a loss to KMart, but a calculable loss to the manufacturer. If someone steals a copy of BattleToads, it's a loss to KMart.

All loss in a retail setting is calculable because items to be sold are physical objects that come from manufacturers that have to be placed on shelves by employees. You have a chain of inventory numbers, money spent and labor spent that goes from the consumer all the way to the manufacturer. A stolen, broken, or lost item is an item that you cannot sell. In the retail world your stock is worth money.

In the digital world, you don't have a set inventory. Your game is infinitely replicable at a negligible or zero cost (the cost bandwidth off your own site or nothing if you're on a portal like Steam, eShop, etc). Digital inventory has no value. Your company isn't worth an infinite amount because you have infinite copies of your game. As such, calculating worth and loss based on infinite inventory is impossible. If you have infinite stock, and someone steals one unit from that stock, you still have infinite stock. If you have infinite stock and someone steals 1 trillion units from that stock , you still have infinite stock. There is no loss of stock when you have an infinite amount.

Because of this, in the digital world, there is no loss when someone steals a game because it isn't one less copy you can sell, it is potentially one less sale but that is irrelevant. Everyone in the world with an internet connection and a form of online payment is a potential buyer for your game but that doesn't mean everyone in the world will buy your game.

Loss due to piracy is an implied loss because it is not a calculable loss. You cannot, with any accuracy, state that because your game was pirated 300 times you lost 300 sales. You cannot prove even one lost sale because there is no evidence to state that any one person who pirated your game would have bought your game if piracy did not exist. From an accounting perspective it's speculative and a company cannot accurately determine loss or gain based on speculative accounting. You can't rely on revenue due to speculation, you can't build a company off of what will "probably" happen. Watch "The Smartest Guys in the Room" and see how that worked out for Enron.

Companies try to combat piracy of their software with DRM but if loss due to pirated software is not calculable to an accurate amount does the implementation of DRM provide a return on investment? It is impossible to say yes to this statement. Look at it as numbers spent in a set budget. You spend $X on research for your new DRM method that will prevent people from stealing your game. That $X is a line item in accounting that can be quantified. Can you then say "This $X we put into research for our DRM gained us back $Y in sales"? There is no way to calculate this because it is not possible to quantify the intentions of a person. Also, there's no way of accurately determining which customers would have stolen the game had there not been DRM.

To add to that, the reality of our current software age is the internet is more efficient at breaking things than companies are at creating them. A company will spend massive amounts of money on DRM and the internet will break it in a matter of days in most cases. When the DRM is broken is it worth the money spent to implement it? Did the week of unbroken DRM for your game gain you any sales from potential pirates due to the inability to pirate at launch? Again, there is no way of telling and as such cannot be used as an accurate justification for spending money.

So what should developers do to make sure people don't steal games? Unfortunately there is nothing anyone can do to actively stop their game from being pirated. I do believe people are less likely to pirate your software if the software is easy to buy, easy to run, and does what is advertised. You can't force a person to buy your software no more than you can prevent a person from stealing it. People have to WANT to buy your software, people have to WANT to support you. People need to care about your employees and your company's well being. There is no better way to achieve that than making sure what you put out there is the best you can do and you treat your customers with respect.

Lets loop back to what's going on with SimCity. I bought SimCity day one, I played it and experienced the same frustrations that countless others are experiencing. For total fairness, I know the always on DRM isn't the main issue, but I can't help but think that the server side calculations are a "wolf in sheep's clothing" version of DRM. I won't claim to know the inner workings of SimCity and this isn't a Captain Hindsight article because that is irrelevant. EA and Maxis are currently facing a bigger problem than piracy: A growing number of their customers no longer trust them and this has and will cost them money.

After the frustrations with SimCity I asked Origin for a refund and received one. This was money they had and then lost a few days later. Applying our earlier conversation about calculable loss, there is a loss that is quantifiable, that will show up in accounting spreadsheets and does take away from profit. That loss is the return, and it is much more dangerous than someone stealing your game.

In the retail world, you could potentially put a return back on the shelf, you could find another customer that wants it, sell it to them and there would be virtually no loss. In the digital world, because there is no set amount of goods, you gain nothing back (one plus infinity is still infinity). It's only a negative experience. A negative frustrating experience for a customer should be considered more damaging than a torrent of your game.

Speaking from my experience with SMB, I know for a fact we have lost a lot of trust from Mac users due to the Mac port of SMB being poor quality. I could go into the circumstances of why it is the way it is but that is irrelevant...it's a broken product that is out in the public. We disappointed a good portion of our Mac customers with SMB and as a result several former customers have requested and received refunds. I'd take any amount of pirates over one return due to disappointment any day.

Disappointment leads to apathy which is the swan song for any developer. If people don't care about your game, why would people ever buy it? When MewGenics comes out, I doubt many Mac users are going to be excited about our launch. When EA/Maxis create their next new game how many people are going to be excited about it and talking positively about it? I imagine that the poison of their current SimCity launch is going to seep into potential customers thoughts and be a point of speculation as to "Is it going to be another SimCity launch?".

This is not a quantifiable loss of course, but people are more likely to buy from distributors they trust rather than ones they've felt slighted by before. Consumer confidence plays a very important role in how customers spend money. I think its safe to say that EA and Maxis do not have a lot of consumer confidence at this point. I think its also safe to say that the next EA/Maxis game is going to be a tough sell to people who experienced or were turned away by talk of frustration regarding SimCity.

As a result of piracy developers feel their hand is forced to implement measures to stop piracy. Often, these efforts to combat piracy only result in frustration for paying customers. I challenge a developer to show evidence that accurately shows implementation of DRM is a return on investment and that losses due to piracy can be calculated. I do not believe this is possible.

The reality is the fight against piracy equates to spending time and money combating a loss that cannot be quantified. Everyone needs to accept that piracy cannot be stopped and loss prevention is not a concept that can be applied to the digital world. Developers should focus on their paying customers and stop wasting time and money on non-paying customers. Respect your customers and they may in turn respect your efforts enough to purchase your game instead of pirating it.

[Tommy Refenes wrote this on sister site Gamasutra's free community blogs.]

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Peter Biddle speaks at the ETech conference in 2007.

Scott Beale

Can digital rights management technology stop the unauthorized spread of copyrighted content? Ten years ago this month, four engineers argued that it can't, forever changing how the world thinks about piracy. Their paper, "The Darknet and the Future of Content Distribution" (available as a .doc here) was presented at a security conference in Washington, DC, on November 18, 2002.

By itself, the paper's clever and provocative argument likely would have earned it a broad readership. But the really remarkable thing about the paper is who wrote it: four engineers at Microsoft whose work many expected to be at the foundation of Microsoft's future DRM schemes. The paper's lead author told Ars that the paper's pessimistic view of Hollywood's beloved copy protection schemes almost got him fired. But ten years later, its predictions have proved impressively accurate.

The paper predicted that as information technology gets more powerful, it will grow easier and easier for people to share information with each other. Over time, people will assemble themselves into what the authors called the "darknet." The term encompasses formal peer-to-peer networks such as Napster and BitTorrent, but it also includes other modes of sharing, such as swapping files over a local area network or exchanging USB thumb drives loaded with files.

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The internet is disrupting many content-focused industries, and the publishing landscape is beginning its own transformation in response. Tools haven’t yet been developed to properly, semantically export long-form writing. Most books are encumbered by Digital Rights Management (DRM), a piracy-encouraging practice long since abandoned by the music industry. In the second article of a two-part series in this issue, Nick Disabato discusses the ramifications of these practices for various publishers and proposes a way forward, so we can all continue sharing information openly, in a way that benefits publishers, writers, and readers alike.

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ebooks are a new frontier, but they look a lot like the old web frontier, with HTML, CSS, and XML underpinning the main ebook standard, ePub. Yet there are key distinctions between ebook publishing’s current problems and what the web standards movement faced. The web was founded without an intent to disrupt any particular industry; it had no precedent, no analogy. E-reading antagonizes a large, powerful industry that’s scared of what this new way of reading brings—and they’re either actively fighting open standards or simply ignoring them. In part one of a two-part series in this issue, Nick Disabato examines the explosion in reading, explores how content is freeing itself from context, and mines the broken ebook landscape in search of business logic and a way out of the present mess.

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suraj.sun writes with this excerpt from Ars Technica: "A new Web standard proposal authored by Google, Microsoft, and Netflix seeks to bring copy protection mechanisms to the Web. The Encrypted Media Extensions draft defines a framework for enabling the playback of protected media content in the Web browser. The proposal is controversial and has raised concern among some parties that are participating in the standards process. In a discussion on the W3C HTML mailing list, critics questioned whether the proposed framework would really provide the level of security demanded by content providers. The aim of the proposal is not to mandate a complete DRM platform, but to provide the necessary components for a generic key-based content decryption system. It is designed to work with pluggable modules that implement the actual decryption mechanisms."


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A proposed anti-copying extension for the WC3's standard for HTML5 has been submitted by representatives of Google, Microsoft and Netflix. The authors take pains to note that this isn't "DRM" -- because it doesn't attempt to hide keys and other secrets from the user -- but in a mailing list post, they later admitted that this could be "addressed" by running the browser inside a proprietary hardware system that hid everything from the user.

Other WC3 members -- including another prominent Googler, Ian Hickson -- have called for the withdrawal of the proposal. Hickson called it "unethical." I agree, and would add "disingenuous," too, since the proposal disclaims DRM while clearly being intended to form a critical part of a DRM system.

In an era where browsers are increasingly the system of choice for compromising users' security and privacy, it is nothing short of madness to contemplate adding extensions to HTML standards that contemplate designing devices and software to deliberately hide their workings from users, and to prevent users from seeing what they're doing and changing that behavior if it isn't in their interests.

Writing on Ars Technica, Ryan Paul gives a good blow-by-blow look at the way that this extension is being treated in the W3C:

Mozilla's Robert O'Callahan warned that the pressure to provide DRM in browsers might lead to a situation where major browser vendors and content providers attempt to push forward a suboptimal solution without considering the implications for other major stakeholders.

Some of the discussion surrounding the Encrypted Media proposal seem to validate his concerns. Mozilla's Chris Pearce commented on the issue in a message on the W3C HTML mailing list and asked for additional details to shed light on whether the intended content protection scheme could be supported in an open source application.

"Can you highlight how robust content protection can be implemented in an open source webrowser?" he asked. "How do you guard against an open source web browser simply being patched to write the frames/samples to disk to enable (presumably illegal) redistribution of the protected content?"

Netflix's Mark Watson responded to the message and acknowledged that strong copy protection can't be implemented in an open source Web browser. He deflected the issue by saying that copy protection mechanisms can be implemented in hardware, and that such hardware can be used by open source browsers.

"Unethical" HTML video copy protection proposal draws criticism from W3C reps

(Thanks, Rob!)

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An anonymous reader writes I'm part owner of a relatively small video editing software company. We're not yet profitable, and our stuff turned up on thePirateBay recently. Some of our potential paying customers are using it without paying, and some non-potential customers are using it without paying. Our copy protection isn't that tough to crack, and I'd rather see the developers working on the product than the DRM (I'm convinced any sufficiently desirable digital widget will get copied without authorization). Would it be insane to release a 'not for commercial use' copy that does some spying and reporting on you, along with a spy-free version for ~$10,000? I feel like that would reduce the incentive to crack the paid version, and legit businesses (In the US anyway but we're trying to sell everywhere) would generally pay and maybe we could identify some of the people using it to make money without paying us (and then sue the one with the biggest pockets). What would you do?"


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The four-person Brisbane, Australian based Hitbox Team has released its combo-filled clean-em-up plaformer, Dustforce, on Steam for Windows. As an acrobatic janitor, players will leap and dash off walls and ceilings and traverse 50 precarious environments varying in difficulty. Dustforce has online leaderboards, online replays, and four-player local multiplayer modes like King Of The Hill and Survival for "loads of dust-cleaning fun."

Dustforce has already won the hearts of judges, earning an Honorable Mention for art at this years' Independent Games Festival and the Grand Prize at indiePub's Independent Developer Competition in 2010. The coming weeks will tell if it wins the hearts of consumers, too.

While Dustforce is now available via Steam for $9.99 (with 10% off) for Windows only, an update for Mac and Linux is planned to come soon. Right now the team has no plans for a stand-alone version, but Desura publishing is a possibility.

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