A glimse of sanity in the online copyright arena

Submitted by Danny Weitzner on Thu, 2007-05-31 21:56. ::

The original appearance of this entry was in Danny Weitzner - Open Internet Policy

With Apple’s announcement of DRM-free music downloadable through iTunes, it appears that we may actually be heading toward a sane, scalable approach to copyrighted commercial content on the Web. Tracks from EMI and other music publishers can now be purchased in two versions, a locked up version for the usual 99 cents or a higher-quality and DRM-free version for $1.29. I got an entire album (Jacqueline Du Pre playing the Dvorák & Elgar Cello Concertos with the Chicago Symphony) for a mere $9.95 in unlocked form.

As several observers have pointed out, these DRM-free tracks do come with a catch — your name is embedded inside the MPEG-4 file so that if you decide to casually share these files around with your hundred thousand closest friends on the Net (exactly the result the DRM has tried, unsuccessfully, to prevent) then you’re at some risk of getting caught and of having personal information spread around the Net with your illegally-copied files. Following some instructions from an independent Apple news blog, I was able to verify that my name was put into these files upon being downloaded

[Daniel-Weitzners-Computer:iTunes Music/...] djweitzn% strings *.m4a | grep name
nameDaniel Weitzner
nameDaniel Weitzner
nameDaniel Weitzner
nameDaniel Weitzner

In addition to my name it appears that my .mac account id, through which I purchased the tracks, was also included.

The big news here goes beyond just copyright. Apple has decided to jettison heavyweight DRM enforcement in favor of an approach that allows the free flow of data with back-end accountability. I believe this is just one step in a larger trend toward what I’ve been calling ‘accountable systems.’

An exclusive reliance on access restrictions such as DRM leads to technology and policy perspectives where information, once revealed, is completely uncontrolled. It’s like focusing all one’s attention on closing the barn door and ignoring what might happen to the horses after they’ve escaped. The reality is that even when information is widely available, society has interests in whether or not that information is used appropriately. Information policies should reflect those interests, and information technology should support those policies.

In research we’ve been doing on accountable systems approaches to privacy and copyright, we seek an alternative to the “hide it or lose it” approach that currently characterizes policy compliance on the Web. Our alternative is to design systems that are oriented toward information accountability and appropriate use, rather than information security and access restriction. I think what Apple is doing here will come to be seen as the an early step in a large-scale transformation in how we approach a wide variety of policy issues on the Web.

Watch this space for more.