Server-based DRM solutions are hostile to consumers

I have a long history with DRM (Digital Rights Management): I worked on the Windows Media 7 Encoder team; I worked at two different internet video startups; and as the owner of record label, I experimented with some of the very first paid digital download solutions (all long lost to internet history at this point).

When I first learned about the DRM mechanism where the player would “phone home” periodically to make sure that you were still licensed to the content, I immediately realized that this was a really fragile way to license media. I’m not talking about subscription content (like Rhapsody), streaming media (like Hulu/YouTube/Flash Media Server) or rentals (like Amazon/iTunes rental), I’m talking about content that is purchased by the consumer. The issue is that there are 1000 ways that the user can lose access to their content without any ill intent on their part. This isn’t an issue if the licenser of their content is still in business and supporting the licensing mechanism. However, even large companies sunset their DRM technology support, screwing over their customers (see Google Video and Microsoft Plays For Sure for example). Depending on how onerous the original licensing scheme is and how it was implemented, buying a new computer, changing the hardware configuration, upgrading system software, the company dropping support for the DRM, the licensing company’s servers going down or just the user being without the internet can cause a user to lose access to the content that they paid for and legally own.

Maybe the user got some warning and could back up their content to some other format (if allowed by the licensing scheme, it often isn’t); but maybe they didn’t see or understand the warning. Then it is too late. Is it the consumer’s fault? No, it is never the consumer’s fault. They purchased digital content with the expectation of owning it forever, just like when they purchased their media as hard goods.

Onerous DRM has been put in place by media companies desperate to avoid piracy, but as it has been written about in so many other places, DRM makes more pirates than it avoids. It makes it more difficult for the people who want to get their content legally by adding roadblocks between them and their purchases and it doesn’t stop the pirates who avoid the whole thing. I wonder how many Plays For Sure customers went to an illegal site to re-download the content that they had already purchased when they lost access to it. I wonder if any of them felt like they were breaking the law at that point. I doubt it. They had paid for something and had been denied access to it. Maybe they were mad at Microsoft, but they were probably more mad at the record labels, because that was the product they purchased. Microsoft was just the store.

I was thinking about this again today when I went to purchase a song off of iTunes and found that Apple had lost my Apple ID. This was the Apple ID that I had spent years buying content from iTunes with. Sure, Apple has moved to make their music DRM free, but I haven’t completely updated my catalog yet, and there is a lot of video that I have paid money for as well that is still subject to Apple’s DRM. While their mechanism still allows me to play my content on my authorized computers (as far as I can tell so far), it will not permit me to authorize a new computer. If Apple isn’t able to fix this problem, what happens to the content I purchased over time? If I can’t access it anymore through no fault of my own, am I in the wrong legally to download it off a file-sharing site?

DRM models have continued to evolve over the years, but I think that the audio model has shown the way for purchased content. It is high time for media owners to allow the people that pay for a full copy of their content to own that content outright, with nothing that could prevent the consumer from having access to the content that they paid for, including transcoding as media formats change over time. Otherwise, they will alientate their consumers as they find they cannot have what they paid for.

note: I avoided mentioning the new licensing models that have sprung up, where when you “buy” a copy of a song or movie the license agreement says that you don’t really own it, which is becoming more common as a way to avoid legal issues when user’s circumvent DRM to make fair-use copies or so that they cannot sue if they cannot access their content. I avoided mentioning it because:
A) it muddies the discussion.
B) I think it is evil.

Creative Destruction in the Newspaper Industry

I saw two things today that somehow connected in my mind. The first was an advert for scholarships for computer programmers to Northwestern’s journalism school (link):
Are you a skilled programmer or Web developer? Are you interested in applying your talents to the challenge of creating a better-informed society? Do you want to learn how to find, analyze and present socially relevant information that engages media audiences? Do you see possibilities for applying technology as a way to connect people and information on the Web or new delivery platforms?

The second item was the announcement that one of Seattle’s two major daily newspapers is up for sale and that it will probably cease as a printed paper no matter what happens:
For sale: The P-I

There are a few things to think about here. A simple one is that the printed newspaper as a product is obviously headed for oblivion. The web is far superior at news delivery, especially extended coverage of breaking news (television isn’t good at the “extended” part). Even the bad part of electronically delivered news (reading off a computer screen) has solutions on the near term horizon (e-book readers). You could say that the journalism school is ahead of the game here, looking to turn programmers into journalists who “get” the future of journalism.

I wonder why anyone would be looking to journalism as a second career at this point though. I can understand that the current upheaval in the computer industry would make a career change attractive, but what we got going in IT ain’t nothin’ compared to the outright carnage happening in journalism.

There is an open question about what is the future of journalism: is it trained journalists researching stories or is it bloggers and “citizen journalists” doing it on their own? I’ve never been one to think that interested amateurs can completely replace experienced professional writers, and I still feel that way. The big stories require real journalists, sniffing out the stories over long periods of time and really getting to the bottom of the issues. However, 95% of professional journalism isn’t that. It’s coverage of city council meetings and the daily reportage that some people care a lot about, some people care a little about and the rest of the people care very little about. Those kinds of things are perfect for the interested and excited amateurs and it is that where the blogging community has been eating away at the journalism community. Without young reporters getting their start on that daily grind kind of stuff, however, I’m not sure how folks become the in-depth-extended-research kinds of reporters.

I honestly don’t think that the future of journalism is going to come from the programmers (even those with masters degrees in journalism). I think it is going to come from the thousands of laid-off reporters being released into the world. I hope that many will start to explore the possibilities and I expect at least one will end up changing what journalism is as we know it.

I guess it is still too early… Lively bites the dust

There is a bit of schadenfreude here on my part. Lively was reviving concepts from the mid to late 90s and passing them off as something new (including one I worked on). All of the efforts of that time died a slow death, and the thought was that we (they) were ahead of the curve. Lively’s lack of uptake slams the door on graphical chat once and for all, I guess.

Official Google Blog: Lively no more

That’s why, despite all the virtual high fives and creative rooms everyone has enjoyed in the last four and a half months, we’ve decided to shut Lively down at the end of the year. It has been a tough decision, but we want to ensure that we prioritize our resources and focus more on our core search, ads and apps business. will be discontinued at the end of December, and everyone who has worked on the project will then move on to other teams.

We’d encourage all Lively users to capture your hard work by taking videos and screenshots of your rooms.

freebie iPhone app idea for the real estate websites

yes, this one is for you redfin, windermere, et al. Normally, I’d sit on idea like this, but lets be real. I’m not going to write this one. So, as a customer, I’m asking you guys to do it for me.

I want an iPhone app version of your websites.


  • Get me details on the houses presented for the iPhone screen size
  • Show me houses for sale near my current location

Less Obvious

  • Let me pick a bunch of houses to view on the website: give me a tour, in-order, with turn-by-turn directions
  • Show me how far and the way to get to the nearest: school, park, etc.

Go for it, I’ll use it, and if you want to toss me a commission or make me VP of product development, I’m cool with that.

where does StumbleAudio get their music from?

I saw a post today on TechCrunch about StumbleAudio, a Pandora-like service for finding music. I gave it a try, I entered “Godspeed You Black Emperor” into the search field. The first track it decided to play was “Uniform Random Variables” from the Intonarumori “Material” album. MY ALBUM. This was especially funny because my major complaint with the TechCrunch article was the assertion that Pandora tended to play music that you already knew and StumbleAudio did not. Not only did I know the first song, I WROTE IT.

While I like that SumbleAudio is recommending my music, I’m a bit concerned. You see, I didn’t license it to StumbleAudio. As far as I can tell, neither did CDBaby (my digital distributor). So where are they getting their music from? In their “AboutUs” they claim to pay the artists whose music is played. If they aren’t pulling tracks from other services and they aren’t pulling them from CDBaby, that isn’t going to be true in my case.

Interestingly enough, if I put “Intonarumori” into their search box, I get no matches found.

Also, interesting is that their is very little info on their site and their WHOIS is private, so no way to contact them.

We’ll see what develops with this company, but they better get way more transparent very fast…

Is this a good or bad thing?

I was washing my hands just now and something struck me.

How does a submarine achieve negative buoyancy by flooding tanks with water when it is still filled with oxygen?

If this had struck me 20 years ago, I would have probably tried to reason it out. Given how little I know about submarines, I may have come up with an elaborate, creative, and definitely incorrect solution. This would have tided me over until I went down to the basement to look it up in the Encyclopedia Britannica or went to the library to get a book on submarines. My answer may have even satisfied me completely.

Today, I go to google, and I type “submarine buoyancy”, the first article is “How Submarines Work” on, and I’m done. My intellectual curiosity is satisfied. Maybe I’ll read more about submarines, maybe I won’t. I definitely won’t spend too much time trying to figure it out myself when the answer is so close to hand.

Am I richer or poorer for the instant access to all knowledge? I don’t know, at least in this case.

What I want from data portability

I want to rate my books, music and DVDs once on netflix, Amazon, Facebook visual bookshelf, iTunes and I want the data shared across all of them.

However, I want complete control over how each of them uses every bit of that data and I want to approve who gets to see it, even among my friends. I don’t want to have to give any service my login for any other service in order to share that data.

I want to eliminate all my current log ins for each service so that I can use the OpenID service I created for myself.

However, I don’t necessarily want anyone to be able to track me around the net using that single sign-on.

I only want to map my social graph once, and I want it to be available for any service that I use.

However, I want to control who in my social graph has access to what information on each website that I use.

Until the privacy aspects of the different data portability are really well thought out, I can’t support any of them. I haven’t seen a single proposal yet that adequately balances utility with privacy. I honestly don’t know if there would a proposal that would offer users decent privacy since that would come at the expense of companies’ ability to market to them.

I think that I’m finally figuring out this social web stuff for myself

I’m a Generation X geek. This means that all this web 2.0 and social networking stuff doesn’t scare me (I was on BBSes before the internet y’all), but it also means that I’m not into giving away all my creative output for free or sharing personal details with strangers. It also means that I’m experienced enough to know that stuff I put out online can come back to haunt me (there are net news posts from 1988 that I can still find in searches that make me cringe). So, I give a thought to what I put out into the inter-ether.

With all that in mind, it is a bit tough to figure out what is appropriate to post on all the various social networks that I am continually dragged into and websites that I have (like this one).  After some serious thought, I think I’m figuring out a taxonomy that works for me: I post nearly no personal details in public forums. That may not make sense given that you are reading my opinions right now on my blog. However, my opinions are free to the world, the details of my personal life are my own business.  You want to write a blog about the intimate details of your personal life, that is great. I just like to choose who I talk about that stuff. Reading this blog, you can figure out a lot of what I care about and you can see who I am as a person, but you don’t really know me (unless you know me). That means that if I share those details of my life with you, it is a statement about our relationship.

Sites like Facebook are a bit different. There, I have an explicit trust circle that can only see details once we are connected. I really like this. I only add people as friends on Facebook if I really know them off-line. This means I can share more, although I still have to be careful because of the mixture of business and personal contacts in that environment.

The way I use twitter actually surprises me a bit. I put way more personal stuff into twitter than I do in other social networks. This is weird given how public my tweets are. However, with Twitter, the messages are so short that they are pretty meaningless without the context of a personal relationship. So a tweet may be meaningless to someone that doesn’t know me, but provides fascinating details to a friend.

These are just some of my thoughts that have been evolving around this. I’d be interested in hearing what other people’s takes on this are. Especially from my generation or older.

enough with the silos and security-holes already

Hey social networking sites, can we just cede the video sharing to youtube, the audio sharing to myspace, the photo sharing to flickr and the rest to whatever. At least, can you all stop forbidding embedding of each others’ content? It is such a pain in the ass to have to upload each video or mp3 to 18 different websites. Most everyone I know is already on all of them anyway. My network varies in size from site to site, but it’s pretty much the same people. Can you guys think of something new for a change instead of trying to be the next facebook or myspace and failing catastrophically? (especially since you can’t think of a new twist on the idea)

On a related topic, consolidating the stuff from all these different sites is a good idea, so friendfeed and plaxo and facebook apps, well done. Now if you can do it without having me give you my login details to all those other sites. Sure random web 2.0 startup, I’ll give you all my login details (won’t that work well when we have OpenID), and I’ll trust that you’ll never do anything bad with them no matter who buys you. I can’t believe that people give this kind of info out…