It’s still weak sauce for me

In last night’s daily link dump, I had added a link to Steve Jobs’s article wherein he calls on the music industry to give up on DRM.

I applaud the sentiment,but had mentioned that I wasn’t comfortable with how the article dismissed the idea of making opening up FairPlay to other music stores. The argument being that people can’t hold a secret:

The most serious problem is that licensing a DRM involves disclosing some of its secrets to many people in many companies, and history tells us that inevitably these secrets will leak.

This doesn’t sound quite right to me – if you really really wanted to share but keep the technology a secret, an combination of escrow+black box comes to mind. Place the technology in the hands of a 3rd party; wrap the technology deep inside binary files and create APIs that take unencrypted music at one end and spit out FairPlay’ed AAC files the other.

In any case, I was looking forward to reading more analysis of this article and most importantly, from John Gruber, whose remains the definitive (and snarky) mac-centric view of technology today for me.

And he delivers very nicely indeed in this article. However, when it came to the part about opening up DRM, Gruber pointed to another article he had written earlier about why DRM and interoperability are mutually exclusive.

Unfortuantely in that article Gruber’s position on why DRM can’t be made interoperable is more finger-pointing than compelling fact. In essence his position is:

  • Apple could licence FairPlay to other manufactures, this would put them in a position similar to Microsoft in the PC OS market
  • Apple won’t choose to use another DRM such as Playsforsure, because then they would be beholden to Microsoft
  • Interoperability exists in standard MP3 files and other non-DRM’ed formats
  • But DRM exists in iTunes because without it, the music labels wouldn’t put their music on iTunes.

In other words, it’s not Apple’s fault that iTunes uses FairPlay; it’s the music industry’s fault. And he goes on to say instead of asking for DRM interoperability, remove all DRM.

Nice foreshadowing of Jobs’s letter; but still not good enough. Let’s recap here shall we?

  • The music industry wants DRM before it will allow digital downloads
  • Apple chose FairPlay for iTunes and the rest is history.
  • Microsoft saw the success of iTunes; wanted a piece of it and came with it’s own version of DRM – Playsforsure. Why did they invent a new DRM? The same reason that Gruber gave for Apple not touching Playsforsure. Microsoft wanted no truck with Apple.
  • Consumers everywhere get locked into one music store and one music player.

So we know the music industry likes FairPlay but the other player don’t like Apple.Would they bite if it was an independent body – maybe? Could we protect the technology by putting it inside black boxes – possibly. Could it be cracked? – the possibility cannot be ignored. Is there another way – maybe.

Why can’t FairPlay be split into 2 parts? A public DRM “key” available to anyone who was interested and a private “key” available only with the independent body that held FairPlay. Tracks won’t play unless they are signed by the private key held by the independent body, which is validated by the public key embedded in every player. In essence, this is nothing but PKI.

Calling for no DRM is well and good, but if the music industry will not budge without having DRM, it’s time to think about more standardized approaches that will benefit the consumer too. Like Gruber said, the problem is not intractable – but that doesn’t mean there is only one solution.

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