Friday, October 4, 2013

Web Standards for DRM: Good for Publishers, Good for the Web

There is a fair amount of apocalyptic stirring of the pot out there on the Web in reaction to the World Wide Web Consortium's announced support for digital rights management (DRM) electronic content protection standards getting baked into Web standards. One imagines castles of protection sprouting up all over the Web, right?

Not.

Look, we've had DRM of various sorts of the Web since its inception, and it's stopped neither thieves nor people of good intent from getting good content - either from DRMed sources or free sources. But what we have had is a patchwork of seemingly endless schemes for DRM, each trying to offer some constituency a proprietary advantage over either their customers or their competitors. And in almost all cases, this has not been the case. Balkanized DRM has slowed down the growth of premium electronic content by making it harder to integrate it in with other Web-standard means of communications and content presentation. Hence, Web pioneer Tim Berners-Lee is all for the new W3C DRM plan - because a standard can allow so much better access, integration and competition.

Having social boundaries around certain communications is a long established human norm. DRM, in its best sense, helps us to enforce those boundaries, the way that social media services like Google+ and Facebook help us to define and enforce audiences for specific content. The main question is whether we have flexible social boundaries, open to the possibilities of the social context that surrounds it in a given use case, or whether we have erected inflexible stone walls around our content, insensitive to the possibility of more exposure being better in certain circumstances. As long as DRM controls were proprietary, the chances of the latter happening on a grand scale were minimal at best. With a W3C standard, it's far more likely that premium content can float at will through the Web like seeds in the wind, discovering on its own the right fertile contexts that will trigger the potential of its opening to new audiences.

And of course these controls need not be exclusionary by default. When used in a Creative Commons model, our DRMed Web content could be openly accessible as a rule, closing up only when it hits exception cases. With a Web-standard implementation of DRM, the ability to do this will be more supportable, since the security required to enforce these rules would be under constant challenge via open source coders. If it's feasible still for private DRM schemes to be shoehorned into the W3C scheme for DRM, the open-sourcers will keep the pressure on them to do better - for everyone's sake.

DRM is neither good nor evil - it's just a technology that can help us to accomplish a goal. Anything is better than the rat's nest of conflicting and productivity-reducing DRM methods that we have today, and a Web-based standard is best of all. I think that it will be great for the publishing industry on many levels. May the best tool win, and I expect that at the end of the day, Web-standard DRM will win.
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