Simple Politics and Computing

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

DRM: An Interview

A friend of mine in my high school requested an interview about DRM for a paper he was doing. I am reposting it with his permission. (Thanks Patrick!) Also, I have cleaned up the grammar and such before posting.

(20:26:56) Patrick: Is Sony leading the DRM movement?
(20:28:59) Just One Trip: No, Sony's not leading it. The RIAA (Recording Industry Assoc. of America), of which Sony is a member, is the biggest proponent. Several of the record labels in the RIAA have been attempting to use DRM to protect online music and CDs from piracy, but no method has worked. Sony just happens to be the player that botched DRM so bad that now many people who didn't know about it before do now, and have a negative view of it.
(20:29:47) Patrick: Ah.
(20:30:25) Patrick: In what way would the common music CD be affected by DRMs?
(20:32:56) Just One Trip: Well, the idea is that people do what is called 'casual piracy.' In essence, it is people buying CDs and then making copies for their friends. DRM on CDs was introduced in an effort to try to prevent this. In the process, DRMed CDs do not meet the specifications Phillips requires to be able to use the 'CD Audio' logo, so the lack of this logo is a giveaway that a CD contains it. DRM often installs a poorly-designed player into the Windows operating system and makes it so that only protected music files can be listened to on your computer, but these files are often of poor quality, and the software is often buggy and can make systems unstable and more likely to crash.
(20:33:10) Just One Trip: Not that that's the intention, it's an unintended side-effect.
(20:35:15) Patrick: How would the DRM know if it was on the buyer's computer or a friends?
(20:35:20) Patrick: Internet registration?
(20:35:28) Just One Trip: Huh?
(20:35:38) Just One Trip: I don't think you follow, let me explain how DRM works.
(20:38:11) Patrick: Okay.
(20:38:29) Just One Trip: In the case of CDs, when the CD is put in the computer, the Windows operating system uses the 'autorun' file and automatically installs the program onto the system, in order to prevent copying. Most DRM methods make their presence known and run in the background to try to prevent copying. The problem with Sony was that they took it a step further and decided to hide the software with what's known as a rootkit. A rootkit essentially modifies the way the operating system works; in this case, the operating system automatically hides any files that began with '$sys$.' While it may seem benign, what happens when a virus gets in that starts with that string? All of a sudden, the virus scan can't detect it because Windows is hiding it due to the rootkit.
(20:39:39) Patrick: Okay, but what would prevent someone from just loaning the CD to a friend?
(20:39:47) Just One Trip: Nothing.
(20:40:03) Just One Trip: The goal is not to prevent people from loaning CDs.
(20:40:12) Just One Trip: The goal is to prevent illegal COPYING of CDs.
(20:40:18) Patrick: I see.
(20:40:43) Just One Trip: If you loan it to a friend and you cannot make copies, then you are without that CD until you get it back.
(20:40:57) Patrick: Right
(20:41:15) Just One Trip: And the music industry is okay with that, because it encourages people to buy more CDs.
(20:41:32) Patrick: Does the copyright protection affect imaging programs (i.e. Alcohol 120)?
(20:41:45) Just One Trip: I have never heard of Alcohol 120, what is it?
(20:42:31) Patrick: It's a great program that allows the user to create a CD image, which is a CD burned to the hard drive to replace the CD.
(20:42:35) Patrick: I use it for games.
(20:43:44) Just One Trip: Ah, well, the DRM does not prevent that. But if you try to run your CD image that you created, you will wind up with the DRM installed, unless your program disables Autorun.
(20:44:32) Patrick: That sucks.
(20:44:39) Just One Trip: I know.
(20:44:51) Just One Trip: But that's the good part about current DRM schemes.
(20:45:59) Just One Trip: If you know how to disable autorun (Windows does not make it easy), you are safe from the schemes so long as you do not run the program manually. Further, if you use the Mac OS or Linux or any operating system besides Windows, you are safe from DRM, as it is only made for the Windows operating system at this time.
(20:46:33) Patrick: Yeah.
(20:46:37) Patrick: I hate autorun.
(20:46:49) Just One Trip: It can be disabled, if you can find the right registry keys
(20:46:53) Patrick: Yeah.
(20:46:59) Patrick: Oh well.
(20:47:14) Patrick: Are there any DRM plans for video games?
(20:50:39) Just One Trip: Yes, actually. At this point, the GameCube and PSP have almost 'natural' DRM, in that since it is not possible to copy the GameCube disks or UMD media for the PSP, there is no concern. I am no expert on the X-Box or the PS2, however I can say that there are rumours that Sony's PS3 will have a string on the disk that, upon first use in the player, will be coded with that player's unique ID. That disk will then only play on that PS3--no reselling your games, no copying and giving them to friends, and if your PS3 dies, tough luck. Further, the PS3 will contain Blu-Ray, a new DVD standard that uses a blue laser rather than a red one to fit more data on a single disk. This has DRM to prevent copying also, including a requirement for a constant internet connection so that if a disk that has been 'compromised' is put in the system, the Blu-Ray player immediately dies and must be sent in for service.
(20:51:43) Patrick: Wow, that seems communistic.
(20:51:43) Just One Trip: Thus many people are opposed to the Blu-Ray standard.
(20:52:05) Patrick: I can see why.
(20:53:27) Just One Trip: HD-DVD, which is backed by Microsoft, is better, although not much better. It does have DRM of its own similar to the Blu-Ray, but not the player-killing DRM of Blu-Ray. Microsoft wants HD-DVD to allow copying so that media can be played using the Windows Media Center Edition and streamed to the X-Box 360 among other uses.
(20:54:14) Patrick: I still don't like Microsoft.
(20:54:20) Just One Trip: Agreed.
(20:54:40) Patrick: Are there DRM plans for DVDs?
(20:56:29) Just One Trip: There already is DRM on DVDs. However, thanks to a European named 'DVD Jon,' the DRM, known as CSS, was cracked within a few weeks. His program, named DeCSS, is used today to allow DVDs to be played in the Linux operating system. I've already detailed what is in store for HD-DVD and Blu-Ray, the up-and-coming formats.
(20:57:02) Patrick: I didn't know that.
(20:57:09) Just One Trip: Yep.
(20:58:18) Just One Trip: When I installed Linux, I had to install the DeCSS plugin along with the mplayer and Xine media players that I use.
(20:59:10) Patrick: DRM is Digital Rights Management right?
(20:59:12) Just One Trip: Yes.
(20:59:16) Patrick: Good.
(20:59:18) Patrick: And...
(20:59:43) Patrick: I think thats it for now.
(20:59:52) Just One Trip: Okay, well, if you need any more, let me know.
(21:00:05) Patrick: Great.
(21:01:02) Patrick: Well, I have to go write a paper now.
(21:01:06) Patrick: Thanks for the help.
(21:01:18) Just One Trip: Okay, best of luck to you.

Flagging the Broadcast Flag

I apologize for the lengthy delay between posts; I have been quite busy with school work. I have some major assignments due in the next week and a half. Once I get those done and turned in, I'll get back on track.

But in the mean time, today we're going to discuss the future of television.

At this point, you're probably wondering just what I'm talking about; the future of television.

If you have satellite TV or digital cable, then you already know what's coming, in a way. In much the same way that satellite TV and digital cable are going to a digital format, like most cellular phones, regular, over-the-air TV is doing the same thing. WRAL-TV in Raleigh, NC was the first television station in the US to do so in 1996, and since then almost all of the rest of the nation's TV stations have joined in.

But there are multiple reasons for going digital. The largest reason is that digital TV stations can be put closer together on the band. This means that after the transition, some of the TV frequencies will be reassigned. Some channels between 52 and 69 will be reassigned to public safety. Others will be sold for cellular phones or wireless internet or other services. That will leave us with 2-51, and of those, channel 37 is reserved for radio astronomy, and channels 2-6 have been proven to have problems with digital television.

In addition, digital TV is the primary method for receiving HDTV (High Definition TV). That's something that more people have heard of. For those who haven't, HDTV is simply TV with more lines of resolution, which creates a clearer, sharper image for the viewer. Some people claim it is like looking through a window. This is the biggest draw for the consumer to digital broadcasting. Although it is available via cable and satellite, it is often much more compressed and prone to "artifacts" (those little blocks that you see on satellite before the rain knocks out the signal) than over-the-air is.

The last major draw is the ability to "multicast." This means that since the digital broadcast is sort of like an endless computer file, it can be divided into multiple "streams." That's right, multiple programs on the same channel. It's difficult to have more than one HD (High Definition) stream and one SD (Standard Defition--like today's TV) at the same time, but if a station chooses not to broadcast in HD, as many as six SD feeds will fit on one channel. How do you tell them apart? Well, in digital receivers, they "remap" to different numbers. For example, my local Fox station (Fox 21/27) broadcasts in HD on 27-1, and then they carry the WB on 27-2 (and their repeater does the same with Fox on 21-1 and WB on 21-2). Other stations do the same thing with their streams. The technology to remap also allows stations to keep their identity. For example, 27-1 is actually broadcasting on channel 17, but thanks to remapping, most people never know. (For information on where your local channels are, check out AntennaWeb).

But how does the Broadcast Flag tie into everything? The MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) wants the FCC to require the use of a Broadcast Flag to allow them to control the use of what is viewed on digital television. This would allow them to control whether or not material can be recorded, for how long a recording could be kept, in what quality the recording could be made in, among other things.

This is not the first time such a case has occurred. In the 1980's, the VCR was released. In what was known as The Betamax Decision, the Supreme Court ruled that since VCRs could be used for legitimate purposes, such as for time-shifting (which is what TiVo and related devices are used for), that VCRs could not be banned. Now, the Broadcast Flag threatens those freedoms that the Supreme Court has stated we have.

At one point, the FCC had mandated that all receivers sold after a certain date have the broadcast flag, but a judge ruled that the FCC did not have the authority; only Congress did. Recently, the MPAA submitted a bill to Congress (that happens all the time folks, no need to gape in horror) that would have made the manufacture of receivers with outputs to current analog TVs illegal! This would mean that if someone wanted to continue watching TV in the digital age, they would have to buy a new TV with the broadcast flag and more limited rights. Thankfully, the bill has not been acted upon and there is no requirement to incorporate the broadcast flag.

The FCC operates under the premise that these are the public's airwaves, not the MPAA's or anyone elses. What we do with things broadcast over the airwaves should not be left up to the MPAA to decide! Likewise, the FCC should have no say in cable television, as cable has almost nothing to do with the airwaves (I'm talking about the censorship here, which will be discussed in detail in a later column).

It is important that we stand up for our rights in this digital age , or else these rights will disappear.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Firefox and the Internet

No, it's not the latest genetic experiment, it's an Internet web browser and it's changing the Internet as we speak.

Before Internet Explorer, which is the most widely-used browser today, most people paid for the Netscape web browser. It was popular, it was widely used, and it had many extensions of HTML (the coding in web pages).

Then Internet Explorer showed up. It was fast, it supported standard, and above all, it came with the popular Windows operating system. Slowly but surely, Netscape lost market share to Internet Explorer, until eventually AOL bought out Netscape and set up the Mozilla Foundation. The Mozilla Foundation released the Netscape source code, used to create the software, and many independent developers were able to contribute to the Mozilla source.

However, there was a problem. Many people began to complain that Mozilla was too bloated. It contained a browser, e-mail, chat, web design and other functions, all in one program, and all ran whenever the program was started. In response, the Mozilla Foundation split them apart. The web design features went into a program called Nvu. Calendar features went into Sunbird and a calendar feature for the new e-mail client, Thunderbird. And the web browser, it was called...


I'm sure a large group of you just asked "What about Firefox?" Well, at first, it was called Phoenix. After some legal issues arose, the name was changed to Firebird. More legal issues led to a renaming to Firefox. Now Firefox has almost 10% of web usage.

But what makes Firefox so great?

Well, for one thing, the browser is very secure. Internet Explorer is deeply integrated into the Windows operating system, so if something compromises the security of Internet Explorer, the entire computer is at risk. Firefox stands by itself, so if it was to be compromised, it would not pose a threat to the computer as a whole.

Further, Internet Explorer is set to run what are known as ActiveX controls. These were intended to allow the installation of software to improve the user experience, but is now mostly used to install spyware and viruses into the system. Firefox does not support ActiveX controls at all, and anything that does try to install requires you to wait three seconds and confirm, so nothing gets into your system without your knowledge.

But what about the experience for the end user? Well, the most noticeable thing that Firefox (and any other modern browser, for that matter) brings to the table is tabbed browsing. Why have 10 Internet windows open when you can have one window with 10 tabs? Tabs make it easier to organize your browsing experience. Plus, if you accidentally close a tab, you can get it back with our next reason to use Firefox.

Extensions, as the name implies, extend the browser's features. Extensions can be written by anybody and are almost limitless in what they can do. One of the most popular extensions, AdBlock, does exactly as the name implies--it blocks advertisements. Other extensions provide any number of features, and since you only add the ones you want, you can remove extensions if the browser becomes too bloated.

You can also add themes to your browser. With Internet Explorer, you're pretty much stuck with the same theme that Windows uses. But with Firefox, you can download a number of different themes and use the one that you like best.

(Added 11-30-2005) My favorite new feature in the newly-released Firefox 1.5 is integrated support for SVG. SVG is short for Scalable Vector Graphics. If you've ever seen a Flash animation, then you should have a general idea of what SVG is. I like it because it allows for coding of images by hand, and it uses open standards. No single company controls SVG, and as such, many different programs exist for making SVG with no restrictions. It is also useful in making images that don't look blocky or blurry when zoomed in. If you have Firefox 1.5, give SVG a try.

Despite all these things, Firefox is not the only alternative web browser, and some people may prefer other browsers. For example, AOL still releases Netscape, which at this point is little more than Firefox hacked to borrow the Internet Explorer rendering engine for web pages at certain times.

Opera has been around for a long time, and is very reminiscent of the old Mozilla browser in its features. It contains a browser, e-mail, chat, and other things, but unlike Mozilla, Opera manages to do it without using a lot of memory. It's not as customizable (at least, not as easily as Firefox is), and when I used it, I personally did not like the feel of it. But many people do like it and like it a lot, and I always recommend that people try as many things as they can to find what works for them.

At this point, Internet Explorer is unsafe and is behind in features, plus it is extremely difficult for web designers to make pages that look nice in it. While you may choose Firefox, Opera, Netscape, or any other browser you may find, I can't stress enough how much moving off of Internet Explorer can help you and the developers who build websites.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Open Formats: What and Why

Anyone who hasn't been living in a hole for the last 15 years has heard of Microsoft, and knows of their products, such as Windows (95, 98, 2000, ME, XP), Office (Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Access), or perhaps some of their other products. Many people have their documents, music, and other files in Microsoft-specific formats. Likewise, people may have their files in special file formats for other major companies.

So when we talk about those formats, they are called "closed formats." This is because in the event that you lose access to your software that you have paid for, such as Office (which runs as high as $400 retail), you are effectively locked out of your files. This also means that transferring files between different versions of the same program, for instance taking a file saved in Word 2003 and opening it on Word 2000, there are likely to be compatibility issues.

The opposite is true of so-called "open formats." These formats are free for use and are fully documented and open. Any programmer can use these formats free of charge. Further, they adhere to strict standards so that compatibility between versions of software is not an issue (usually). Just the fact that no single company can drop support or change it means that no matter how far into the future you go, you should still be able to read your document in its original manner, and there should be a free tool to do so.

Microsoft vs. OpenDocument

Chances are that if you are tech-savvy enough, you know what .doc is. That's the current Word document format, dating to at least 1995. However, despite .doc having existed for a long time, it has seen many changes. If you open a document you made with Word 95 on today's Word 2003, it would likely look very different, although your text will be the same.

OpenDocument was developed in response to problems like these. It is a creation of Sun, who is responsible for the program known as, a free Office suite that performs many of the same functions as Microsoft Office. It is now managed by a board known as OASIS (and is commonly called the OASIS OpenDocument format), of which several companies, Microsoft included, are members.

OpenDocument uses a zip container to hold data. What this means is that when you look at a .odt file (OpenDocument Text), you could rename it .zip and look inside. The same is true of the other OpenDocument formats. You'll find any images or other content you use in your document, as well as the document itself in an easy-to-read XML format. This means that all the text is plainly readable, surrounded only with tags to indicate where each piece of text goes, its font, and so on. This method results in much smaller file sizes and makes it easy to view your documents for the necessary text, even if you do not have a program to read it with.

OpenDocument is supported by, obviously, along with several other less-known products such as AbiWord. Microsoft is also free to implement support for it in Office; however, has so far said they will refuse to do so.

Instead, Microsoft is going in a different direction. Starting in Office 12 (due out next year, most likely under a name like Office 2006 or Office Vista), Microsoft will save documents in their own XML-based format. However, this indicates that Microsoft software will be preferred for reading these documents. Other programs will have to pay to license the ability to read it, or will simply not work with it.

OpenDocument is being experimented with in several places, including the state of Massachusetts, which has stated that all documents produced after December 2006 by the state government must be in the OpenDocument format. This is so that people do not have to spend obscene amounts of money on the Microsoft software needed to read it.*

*Microsoft formats are supported by OpenOffice, but will often contain formatting errors, as it is not officially licensed from Microsoft.

MP3 vs. WMA vs. AAC vs. OGG Vorbis, and FLAC

Almost everyone knows what an MP3 is. MP3s are compressed audio files. Some people might not understand why open formats would be needed when it comes to music; MP3 support is free, right?

Well, not exactly. When you use it, someone is paying licensing fees for use of some patents on the MP3 format. In addition, MP3 is a relatively old format, and as such there are better methods of compression these days. This alone should make it clear that MP3 is an outdated choice.

The biggest flaw, according to the music industry, is the lack of DRM. I explained what DRM is in the last column, and MP3 does not contain any. In response, Microsoft created Windows Media Audio format, or WMA. While it is free and has better compression than MP3, it also has some pretty strong DRM. You are restricted on where it can be played. It is still not supported outside of Windows and does not work with the iPod, though it IS supported on a number of other media players.

AAC is the other competitor. Apple uses a modified form of AAC for its iPod and iTunes (for DRM purposes), but again, this one demands royalties, just like MP3, to Dolby Labs. It also sounds much better than MP3, but once again, support for it is dismal, especially on portable media players, though it is supported on the iPod.

The other two formats, OGG Vorbis and FLAC, are open formats and are therefore free. OGG Vorbis is seeing more support in recent years among non-Apple audio players, and according to many sounds the best of the four compressed audio formats. Because it is completely free, you never have to worry about having to pay for the software needed to run it, although you may need to locate a new portable media device if you want to listen to them on the go.

FLAC is different from all these other formats. FLAC stands for Free Lossless Audio Codec, meaning that FLAC merely compresses blank areas, leaving all the rest of the original information intact. Audiophiles in particular tend to like this format, as it saves disk space without sacrificing audio quality. Regardless, for the average person this is probably overkill and does result in much larger file sizes.

While MP3 is the established standard, there are several media formats in use, and the open ones are the ones that can be counted on to always be listenable on computers, due to documented standards.

Monday, November 14, 2005

DRM and You

My first true post on here is going to be about DRM, or "Digital Rights Management," and what it means for the consumer.

Chances are that you have heard of DRM before, but did not take major notice of it until the Sony XCP affair. While I won't be getting into that today, I will discuss what DRM is, how it works, and why you should care about it, regardless of what certain executives at Sony might think.

When the original idea of copyright was introduced, the thought was that artists (writers, painters, etc.) would create works to satisfy their natural urge to do such things. In an effort to reward such artists for their work, the idea of a limited copyright was allowed, so that artists could make money off their works until a reasonable amount of time had passed, after which it would be put into the public domain.

The primary concept that held copyright together was the idea that the ability to copy was extremely limited. With books, it would be difficult to copy each individual word and create new "bootleg" books, if you will. Artworks of all kinds faced similar constraints, even as late as the 1980's, when audio casette tapes and VHS came about, as these produced low-quality copies of original materials that were often unsatisfactory. People relied on publishers and labels to produce and publicize their works.

Now we move into today. With the addition of simple components to a computer, nearly identical copies can be made of music and video, with little or no loss in quality. In addition, the Internet makes it possible to quickly distribute music to a wide audience for relatively little cost. Computers make it easy to produce one's own music very easily and inexpensively.

These things can be good or bad. Good in the sense that now anybody, regardless of whether or not they have the backing of a publisher or label, can get into making and selling artwork. Bad because piracy of such materials is increasingly easier and more widespread.

This is where DRM comes in. In order to restrict the piracy of such materials, labels have begun to place what's known as "Digital Rights Management" on their CDs in order to prevent the copying of music. However, this DRM is often overly restrictive, trampling on the users' fair use rights (as established in The Betamax Case before the Supreme Court in the early 1980's) and causing overall instability and other issues. This is where the major conflict with DRM is.

The worst part is that this DRM does not actually stop piracy. For example, it is easily stopped on the Windows line of operating systems by holding down the [Shift] key on the keyboard while inserting the CD. The DRM has no effect at all on the Mac or Linux operating systems. Other systems of DRM were as easy to defeat as using a Sharpie marker on the correct portion of the CD, or other simple methods. The people that the companies are trying to stop from pirating are not being affected. The only effect this has is to limit the ability of music that less tech-savvy users "own." I put "own" in quotation marks because in reality these days, people do not own their copies of music or movies, they are simply "licensing" a copy. When you purchase a piece of software and you agree to a EULA (End User License Agreement), you are most likely agreeing to a license to use the software in a specific way. If you truly owned the copy, you could do whatever you wished with it, including loaning it to friends and making copies.

In my view, the primary issue is that the large role that the labels play in music is outdated. Their business model no longer makes sense in our world. They spend roughly $3 per CD to make, give the artist $0.20, and then take the rest for themselves, supposedly for promotion which is done primarily by radio stations and music-related television networks, which are owned by these companies anyway. In this day and age, the production and distribution of music can be quickly and cheaply done online. The only thing the labels can do is produce physical CDs for those who want them, and to promote the artist.

What surprises me most is that even when a free solution such as the Internet is available, many people prefer to take the high road and buy the CD, not only to feel like they own a copy, but also to support the artist. With or without this DRM, some people will make copies freely via such things as the old Napster or KaZaA or other peer-to-peer services. However, many others will continue to buy and use music as they do today. What this indicates is that people are willing to support artists they like, and I am no exception. The biggest problem appears to be the obscene cost of music. A true artist would want to sell more albums at a lower profit, as it could very well draw more money and more listeners. Providing cheap CDs to people (and remember, the cheaper they are the more they can buy) makes them more likely to want to spend money on live shows, bonus material, clothing, and other, more profitable things for the artists.

But the labels don't want to see that happen, because if these things were to happen, they would be out of business, and with good reason. The labels are obsolete in their current form. I believe that they know this and are using the power they have to extend their lives as long as possible. Their time has come, and it is imperative that we take a stand against them. They seek to make obscene profits for themselves while giving the artists little money from their record sales.

Why do we insist on supporting the label and not the artist? I, for one, am currently boycotting commercial music, because I feel bad for the artists that are not getting their fair share. I know many people do not want to give up their music, so here are some tips.
  • Go to live events. There's nothing quite like a live event. The artist gets a majority of the money from those and you get to hear your music. It's a win/win!
  • Listen to independent artists. My personal favorite artist, John Vanderslice, is an independent artist. He is not affiliated with a major label and even his CD sales go primarily to him.
  • Buy used CDs. Money from these sales do not go to record labels, as these sales have already been made. This is a cost-effective legal way to continue to enjoy commercial music, even if you have to wait a few months to buy that new CD.
I hope that you now better understand not only what DRM does, but why it is important and why I feel it is necessary to fight it.