A fair system of copyright protection

I’m all for campaigns against Digital Rights Management – the systems which lock media to certain hardware with the aim of ‘protecting copyright’ – but I think that ‘activists’ need to do a better job of disassociating themselves from illegal behaviour.

The system being pushed for seems to be:

  • No DRM. If I’ve purchased a DVD, I can copy it to my computer and put it onto my iPod without a problem. I can use any portable video player out there to play it back.
  • Relaxed copyright. If I like a song, I can email it to some friends. I can lend people DVDs. I can swap the occasional CD and make a copy for myself.

Many people campaign on both of these issues, and on the whole I agree with them, but there’s a hint of anarchy that isn’t always clarified. I think it should be emphasised that the aim of removing DRM and relaxing copyright is not free media for all. People should still be prosecuted for public distribution of media, as they are now: it’s not fair for non-copyright-owners to put music/films online for anybody to download, just as it’s wrong to buy a DVD, make some copies and sell them for a profit. There’s a point at which sharing media is no longer reasonable, and although it’s difficult to define a particular boundary, I think that people roughly know where it lies. It’s ok to email the latest Oasis track to five friends, saying “have you heard this? It’s cool”, but it’s not ok to do the same to an office of 100 people (unless, say, you work for a music magazine).

For the above reasons I very much like the suggestions on this post, written in reaction to the half-baked movie downloads now offered by film studios. I was particularly drawn to this:

Skip the DRM limits. It’s called steganography [link mine – Andrew], people. I can’t believe this technology hasn’t caught up with video. For heaven’s sake, just embed a single-user license code somewhere into the video itself. If someone peers-to-peers it, look up the code and prosecute the guilty party. The code doesn’t have to permeate the entire video, just a few secret scenes will do it. Add this to the storefront fulfillment software and bob’s your uncle.

That seems like it would work well, and would allow for prosecution of unreasonable behaviour. Just as many current movies have occasional flashes of red dots that uniquely identify the film stock, and hence the cinema, a similar digital system would allow local distribution while helping to prosecute people who abuse the system. The copyright companies would have to monitor BitTorrent downloads and physical shipments as they always have, but my distributing five copies to friends isn’t going to sound any alarms. If my friend then puts it onto the internet for free then it wouldn’t be too hard for the authorities to track me, and then my ‘friend’, down.

What I particularly like about this is that it could be embraced by those who work to corrupt current protection systems. Rightly or wrongly, there’s a sense of fighting against authority and unreasonable restrictions that drives many to put huge amounts of effort into, for example, cracking the codes which prevent DVDs being copied to computers; these cracks are then put online for anybody to use. This shouldn’t happen to the same extent if you had a fair system. Sure, some people would try to find ways around it, but because this could only be for illegal (and unreasonable) purposes the perpetrators would be ostracised by the tech community. Hell, if you got it right there’d be plenty of people willing to create open-source systems of digital markers that could quickly adapt to any such attempts. I think most people would be happy with a ‘you play fair by us, we’ll play fair by you’ honour system, and would have no problem with punishing those who abuse it.

I think this could work for online downloads, anyway. I’m not sure whether it could be applied to DVDs – people would presumably have to supply their name and address when purchasing, which would send privacy campaigners into trademark fits of self-importance. Maybe you could configure it so people must register if they want to copy media – would that be acceptable?

What do you think? Does that make sense?