More On Copy Protection

AACS (the copy protection system for HD-DVD, Blu-Ray and other high-definition content) continues to crumble. In a nutshell, AACS adds layers to the process of decrypting movies on disc, and the layers are falling one by one. The previous cracks (see my report) opened individual discs and classes of discs; this crack opens all discs playable by a particular software-based player. It’s possible that the studios could revoke that player’s ability to play discs released in the future, but doing so now hurts customers who will have to update their copy of the player.

With all the news about copy protection failure, it’s worth reading some really good articles on why the efforts of multi-million-dollar companies continue to be cracked by smart teenagers. First, Cory Doctorow’s talk at Microsoft Research:

DRM systems are broken in minutes, sometimes days. Rarely, months. It’s not because the people who think them up are stupid. It’s not because the people who break them are smart. It’s not because there’s a flaw in the algorithms. At the end of the day, all DRM systems share a common vulnerability: they provide their attackers with ciphertext, the cipher and the key. At this point, the secret isn’t a secret anymore.

Cory references another paper written by Microsoft employees, now called simply “the darknet paper”. It’s a little more technical, but explains the problem well:

We investigate the darknet – a collection of networks and technologies used to share digital content. The darknet is not a separate physical network but an application and protocol layer riding on existing networks. Examples of darknets are peer-to-peer file sharing, CD and DVD copying, and key or password sharing on email and newsgroups. The last few years have seen vast increases in the darknet’s aggregate bandwidth, reliability, usability, size of shared library, and availability of search engines. In this paper we categorize and analyze existing and future darknets, from both the technical and legal perspectives. We speculate that there will be short-term impediments to the effectiveness of the darknet as a distribution mechanism, but ultimately the darknet-genie will not be put back into the bottle. In view of this hypothesis, we examine the relevance of content protection and content distribution architectures.

Finally, on the business side, science-fiction publisher Baen Books has been leading the charge away from copy protection in the world of electronic books. Editor and author Eric Flint explains why in a series of articles on their web site; here are the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth articles on that topic. The sixth article is particularly good, as it explains Baen’s (and Flint’s) experiences with publishing online without copy protection:

The titles are not only made available for free, they are completely unencrypted—in fact, we’ll provide you free of charge with whatever software you’d prefer to download the texts. We make them available in five different formats.

And . . .

The sky did not fall. To the contrary, many of those books have remained in print and continued to be profitable for the publishers and paying royalties to the authors. For years, now, in some cases. Included among them is my own most popular title, 1632. I put that novel up in the Baen Library back in 2001—six years ago. At the time, the novel had sold about 30,000 copies in paperback.

Today, six years after I “pirated” myself, the novel has sold over 100,000 copies.

If you’re curious, I encourage you to check out the Baen Free Library for yourself.