Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Why FairUse4WM was a good thing for the content business

12 months or so back now the nascent online video industry and the bulk of the non-Apple audio download business got it's first big security wake-up call when Viodentia hacked through Microsoft's previously unbroken DRM 10. Up to that point many within the industry while theoretically acknowledging that a crack was possible, privately felt that DRM 10 introduced a level of security that allowed the video download and music subscription business to operate in a pretty bullet-proof manner. Viodentia's FairUse4WM put paid to that myth overnight.

When the first version of FairUse4WM came out it allowed Microsoft's DRM protection to be stripped from all video and music in a user's collection within seconds. The first hack was rapidly followed by a succession of Microsoft patches and then updated hacks posted on the Doom9 forum from Viodentia before finally it Microsoft realeased a patch that stuck. Even this only lasted a few month's before the hackers struck again with a tool to unlock the keys from even Vista and the Zune player

During this time Engadget published an interview with the alleged perpetrator Viodentia. One passage in particular stands out as being particularly prescient and insightful:

"I think FairUse4WM is a good thing for the industry -- it demonstrates
that the entire world doesn't turn upside down when there's no effective
protection on content. I doubt subscription based services are impacted...the
value of a subscription is the continuing access to new titles, which isn't
dependent on the protection. "

Subsequent events have proved this to be largely correct. By blowing away the illusion of an unbreakable DRM content providers woke-up to the reality that the internet really was playing by a different rule-set. And it forced them to consider more closely what consumers wanted and what a sustainable digital product could be.

The key thing is to remember that people consume content but that they will buy product. I don't believe that DRMed content is implicitly evil as many on the internet will lobby. What is wrong with DRMed content is that it's a bad product. The strait-jacket of the existing technology means it's a royal pain-in-the-arse to use computer-based DRMed video formats in the ways that society is accustomed to using traditional video formats. It's not interoperable between systems, and often you can't even back it up. Most crucially I can't get it off my PC and onto my TV easily. And the killer for MS-DRM based audio services is that won't play on my Ipod.

Now this is nothing to do with the concept of DRM, it's just that the time, effort, resource and industry will to fix these problems hasn't been spent on product development. Put simply - Microsoft DRM - which is probably the best DRM on the market - is a bad product, not because it's DRM, but because it has a crap user experience.

Cracking it though let the music industry imagine a world without DRM, or at least effective DRM, and allowed the replication of real-world models like paying per download to be broken away from. DRMless music, Radioheads honesty box experiment, and the acknowledgement that Youtube's ad-revenue sharing is acceptable to many within the business give evidence of a growing momentum into the new possibilites of online content commerce. More crucially they could see that their existing online revenues didn't collapse overnight - to be expected really given that home-taping didn't kill music either, and that was far easier to do.

Hopefully the video business will follow suit and realise that at this point they need to re-invent the product for a new century and devise new ways of selling and packaging content should emerge. Of course they may well emerge into a world where the very same plain vanilla content is universally available for free already. But after all that's never stopped Evian.

At the end of the Engadget interview Viodentia wondered "I wonder if any subscription company will publicly admit that FairUse4WM was good for them?". Unlikely I guess, but ultimately I think he did the content business a favour.


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