If you work with digital media, you’ll probably have heard about Digital Rights Management (DRM) for online content. It's the practice of imposing restrictions that control what a user can do with a digital property and is put in place to prevent the sharing or copying of media such as ebooks, songs , games etc. DRM also affects online video and now that Adobe’s Flash platform is going the way of the dinosaur when it comes to its use as a video player, all eyes are turning to the future of HTML5 and DRM's role in that.
And the future seems to have already been decided. At least by Google, Microsoft, Netflix, and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Earlier this year, Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the Internet, gave his blessing to DRM when W3C announced that it was supporting Encrypted Media Extensions (EME). In other words, the organization that sets the standards for web development is openly supporting DRM in HTML5. Some see this as the first step in the complete takeover of the web by corporate interests, and an inevitable dictatorship of device compatibility. So we figured that it might be a good thing, before the war trumpets start blaring, to take a look at both the pros and cons of DRM for HTML5 (yes, there are some pros, more on this later), in order to frame this ongoing narrative for future discussion.
The [Rather Obvious] Drawbacks of DRM
This kind of world wide web is the greatest fear of open source proponents, a digital armageddon they believe is heralded by the impending adoption of DRM into HTML5. While this Big Brother scenario might be slightly ridiculous, especially since the only thing on the table right now is online media, it’s a good, educated guess as to how DRM could fundamentally affect our weberties.
1. DRM will put walls around the web
If EME passes muster and is adopted down the road by the majority of digital content producers, the Web as we know it will probably cease to exist. As of November 2013 we can still download, save, and watch online videos on our laptops and cell phones. EME seeks to stop these shenanigans and end unrestricted multimedia sharing and viewing.
And while there’s nothing wrong with corporate entities trying to turn a profit, there is something wrong with telling customers how they can interact with their already-purchased products. Defective By Design has a great video that explains this outrage.
2. DRM drives up costs for producers and consumers
One of many reasons most developers won’t touch DRM with a stick is because it can be expensive. Implementing proprietary video distribution software doesn’t come cheap. Producers stand to make a lot more money with non-managed content than they do with DRM content because the royalty rates from online distributors are so low (because of DRM). Not to mention unhappy customers who have to deal with DRM are going to complain to content producers, who have no real say in how they distribute their product. Of course, rising production costs mean pricier products, too. It’s not a win-win situation for anybody except the DRM overlords.
3. DRM isn’t a foolproof solution
A lot of video producers are under the false impression that EME will solve all their online distribution woes. It won’t. EME, and DRM, by extension, won’t stop intrepid individuals from illegally downloading, uploading, and sharing files over P2P torrenting networks. All EME does is wrap a thin layer of security around content. And all it takes is one person to crack the code and redistribute for the masses, Robin Hood-style. In other words, all these earth-shattering changes to the web may be happening for no other reason than companies feel the need to be in control.
The Hypothetical Advantage of DRM
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably wondering how DRM for HTML5 could be a good thing in any universe. Well, it might not be but the adoption of DRM by HTML5 and online content producers could prevent something potentially more web shattering down the road.
It’s too early to tell, but the proliferation of smart devices, the continued evolution of the web-surfer to the web-commuter, and the low prices of apps have all led to a marked shift towards mobile devices, mobile web, and mobile habits. Corporations are keenly aware of this, and some people have started theorizing that a failure to ratify DRM into HTML5 would lead to big content producers simply taking their business elsewhere: off the web and into app stores.
This Appification model of the future web has already been tossed around, and opinions are torn on whether or not it’s a good thing. While apps are certainly the future of interactivity, there’s a fine line between an app-friendly web ecosystem and total privatization of user experiences.
In other words, think of a web in which Netflix was every single company. You wouldn’t be able to watch anything or even read anything - unless you paid (or at least became a torrenting pro). This is the defective scenario we could face us if DRM for HTML5 isn’t adopted by the mainstream. Producers deserve to make money, after all, and they’re entirely within their rights if they rigorously limit distribution of unpaid-for content.