The Leaky Abstraction of Digital Rights Management

For years, the Associated Press has been complaining about websites that quote what it regards as excessive quantities of AP stories (although most of these quotes are likely legal under copyright’s fair use doctrine). In July, the Associated Press made an announcement that utterly mystified the world’s computer geeks. It consisted of a press release and a ridiculous graphic supposedly explaining the technology:


As my advisor Ed Felten explained at the time, no plausible technology could do the things the graphic claims the technology can do. Plain text is an open format, and every browser on the market enables effortless cutting and pasting of text content. No consumer is going to agree to run a browser that disables cutting and pasting. It turns out that the technology AP was actually releasing was a microformat called “hNews” that allows news stories to be tagged with metadata that describes the ownership and permissions associated with content. The hNews format can encode certain ownership information, but it doesn’t include any enforcement mechanism. The technology does not provide any “protection” from unauthorized copying, nor is there a “tracking beacon” that “sends signals” to anyone. As Ed puts it, “if there’s a story here, it’s in the mismatch between the modest and reasonable underlying technology, and AP’s grandiose claims for it.”

The interesting question is: how did this happen? No competent engineer would have created the graphic above. Indeed, few competent engineers would even been able to keep a straight face if shown that graphic. And it’s a safe assumption that the AP has at least a few competent engineers on staff. So how did this graphic get released?

I think this is another example of the problems I’ve been talking about the last few days: poorly chosen abstractions and a managerial structure that stovepipes decision-making and insulates senior decision-makers from bad news. I don’t have any inside information about the AP’s decision making process, but I’m willing to bet that what happened was that senior management asked their engineers to come up with a technology to help “protect” their news. The engineers realized that what management wanted wasn’t possible, but they didn’t want to tell their bosses that. So they gave their bosses hNews, which doesn’t do all the magical things described in the graphic above, but is a small step in that general direction. At this point I imagine management handed the project off to some marketing flacks who were tasked with taking the engineers’ dry technical specification and making it sexy. And since the marketing flacks didn’t know that the technology management wanted was impossible, they created the clip-art-and-bullet-point monstrosity you see above.

The AP is not the first incumbent content organization to be suckered into betting on copy protection technology that doesn’t work. Indeed, this is a pattern that has been repeated over and over in content industries. The music industry tried to create a DRM-based music store with PressPlay and later with the “new” Napster and Microsoft’s comically-named PlaysForSure format. It also introduced DRM on CDs that wound up behaving like spyware on users’ computers. Hollywood, for its part, has had a string of hopeless DRM-based movie services, including MovieLink and CinemaNow. Even the “successful” DRM schemes on DVDs and Blu-Ray discs are only successful in the sense that they didn’t destroy the viability of the underlying format. No one seriously believes these formats prevent piracy.

The fundamental problem, as computer scientists have understood for at least a decade, is that the basic assumptions of digital rights management are wrong. Steve Jobs put it well back in 2003:

When we first went to talk to these record companies — you know, it was a while ago. It took us 18 months. And at first we said: None of this technology that you’re talking about’s gonna work. We have Ph.D.’s here, that know the stuff cold, and we don’t believe it’s possible to protect digital content. What’s new is this amazingly efficient distribution system for stolen property called the Internet — and no one’s gonna shut down the Internet. And it only takes one stolen copy to be on the Internet. And the way we expressed it to them is: Pick one lock — open every door. It only takes one person to pick a lock. Worst case: Somebody just takes the analog outputs of their CD player and rerecords it — puts it on the Internet. You’ll never stop that. So what you have to do is compete with it.

People tend to forget that the iPod predated the iTunes store by about 18 months. Apple reportedly refused to include digital rights management technology in the first iPod because they didn’t want the resulting compatibility problems to hurt iPod sales. Ultimately, though, the labels persisted and Jobs relented in order to get the iTunes Store off the ground. The iTunes DRM not only failed to stop piracy, it also dramatically increased Apple’s power in the music industry.

The problems I’ve been writing about in the last few posts—leaky abstractions and hierarchies that suppress bad news—are exacerbated when the people at the top of the hierarchy are known to prefer a particular outcome. In late 2002 and early 2003, everyone knew that George Bush and Dick Cheney wanted to find evidence of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq. This had a pernicious effect on the entire intelligence community, because every intelligence officer knew it would be better for their careers if they found evidence of WMD than if they didn’t. The recording industry faced a similar situation earlier this decade. Label executives wanted very badly to believe that Internet piracy could be stopped. So people who offered plausible-sounding anti-piracy solutions within the organization got more traction within the organization than people pointing out that these “solutions” were snake oil.

The graphic above has the same basic defect as the PowerPoint slide I featured in my previous post: it’s wishful thinking unmoored from the “facts on the ground.” Insulated from reality by layer upon layer of bureaucracy, the key decision makers marched confidently off a cliff in the fashion of Wile E. Coyote. Only months or years later did they look down and realize that they were no longer standing on solid ground.

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3 Responses to The Leaky Abstraction of Digital Rights Management

  1. Rhayader says:

    No one seriously believes these formats prevent piracy.

    Haha yeah, not even close. Even with all the HDCP “handshaking” and closing of the “analog hole” and whatnot, it still takes all of 5 seconds to find torrents for HD versions of newly released movies.

    Some of this “leaky abstraction” stuff actually could be applied to my favorite policy fetish: drug prohibition. The long-standing Drug War tradition of the “dope on the table” press conference is itself a pretty little abstraction that’s supposed to clearly demonstrate the “dent” we’re making in the criminal drug market. It purports to encapsulate a system which, in reality, extends almost infinitely beyond the selected abstraction.

    Anyway, cool stuff Tim.

  2. Akusu says:


    I don’t understand how a news organization can be so clueless about DRM, which is what this is essentially trying to be (and failing oh so miserably). You’d think that they’d you know… have tons of reports on these kinds of efforts.

    I’m sure it’s possible to lock something up so tight that it can’t be read. The problem is you can’t lock something up so that it can only be read by a certain anything. If it’s possible to unlock it, it will get unlocked. Period.

    They state at the bottom of the press release that they are so pervasive as to have approximately 50% of the population having read or watched something that they distributed. Something tells me they’re doing just fine.

    Unless they’re worried about the death of paper and local news stations, but this still strikes me as the wrong way to adapt.

    This goes back to something that struck me the other day. Where I work, we use open source tools(ie. Eclipse) for open source platforms(TomCat) built on open source programming languages (Java) and even test them in open source browsers(FireFox). Alot of us even run an open source operating system.

    Open source in general is more reliable and more compliant because of the number of hands that went in it and how well it avoids top-down thinking. I generally prefer it because I can usually modify it to suit my needs relatively easily because it is free and open.

    BUT. We still use Visual Studio. We still support Windows, and plan to support different server types. There is still a lot of power in proprietary equipment/programming and the status quo. AP appears to be trying to leverage this, but the time for it has long since passed.

    It would be funny however to watch them crumble while their usual reporters start diverting their stories to other formats in order to allow them to be seen by everyone.

  3. News*papers* may be dying but news *containers* will live forever!

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