Technical copy protection solutions are useless

Digital copying of content is fast, easy and simple and produces a copy which is fully identical to the original. This makes it possible to create a perfect digital copy of a musical work or computer program and to transfer that copy to a third party. Not surprisingly, producers of digital works are lobbying to stop or limit digital copying.

To put a stop to digital copying, more and more hardware and software is being equipped with "digital rights management" functionality. The content owner can then choose to grant particular rights to the user of the content, for example a right to play back the content, a right to copy the content or a right to distribute the content. The user's device enforces these rights and simply refuses to copy a work if the owner hasn't granted the user a copying right.

However, the producer's and user's rights are not technical, but legal and ethical in nature. Someone who can copy someone else's work but doesn't, has the ethical belief that he isn't supposed to do that. In contrast, someone who can't copy a work doesn't consider the reasons and thus has no idea why he can't copy.

By enforcing rights using technical means only, the expectation is created that "what you can't do isn't allowed, hence what you can do must be allowed". In other words, if you manage to crack DVD encryption, you are allowed to copy and distribute DVDs. Of course this is a challenge to anyone with some technical knowledge, and so it shouldn't come as a surprise that almost any copy protection mechanism is cracked in a very short time, and that the crack is available on the Internet almost as quickly.

The content owners' reaction to this is to sue or prosecute the distributers of the cracks, and to lobby for laws that forbid cracking. This only makes the challenge more exciting: now you must also cover your tracks when cracking and distributing the crack. This doesn't solve the problem, as it instills no insight that they shouldn't crack.

The point is that technical systems can enforce rights, but they cannot teach people why these rights are being enforced. In other words, why you're not allowed to copy someone else's work. Until that ethnical insight dawns on people, they will copy works and will crack any protection mechanisms that try to stop them.

This article was published earlier (in Dutch) in Netkwesties.