Last week I wrote about Mozilla’s awful decision to make DRM a standard part of Firefox. This resulted in some interesting comments from Gervase Markham, a British Mozilla engineer. His main point was the following:
Your slippery slope argument doesn’t really hold. Let’s say the publishing industry comes along and says “you did DRM for video; we now want it for publishing”. What makes you think Mozilla will not refer them to the answer given in the case of Arkell vs. Pressdram? Why does doing it for video in some way bind us to say “yes” for publishing? We can just say “different circumstances”. What are they going to do – sue?
To which I replied:
OK, and following your Arkell vs. Pressdram answer, the industry would go ahead and use DRM for text, Google, Microsoft and Apple would implement it, and Firefox users won’t be able to read any of that locked-down content. It’s exactly your argument for implementing DRM for video: you will “have” to do it, because otherwise Firefox users will lose out etc etc.
I think the market conditions in publishing are very different, so I don’t think that it would lead to the same argument applying. DRM is not used at all for text today; it’s universally used for Hollywood video.
I’m very grateful to Markham for this dialogue, because it has helped me pin-point what I think is the fatal flaw in Mozilla’s logic. There seems to be a belief amongst people working on the project that video is special in the way that it uses DRM, and that pandering to the film industry’s demands by including DRM in Firefox will only have limited damage outside this industry.
I think this is dead wrong.
The publishing industry would give anything to have the option to impose DRM on all online text in the same way that the film industry has for video. Indeed, publishers were so desperate to add DRM to ebooks that many of them adopted Amazon’s DRM system without thinking it through. By effectively making Amazon’s system the de facto DRM standard, the publishing industry has handed control of the ebook system to the retailer – read this excellent post by Charlie Stross for a full explanation of what happened and what it means.
That experience, I think, is why the publishing industry has not so far pushed for DRM on the Web: it needed a completely neutral DRM standard that would not give control to any one entity. The new HTML5 DRM framework provides publishers with exactly what they need: power over users, but independence from any one DRM supplier.
DRM for video is simply a Trojan Horse for all the copyright industries. Once all the main browsers have adopted it for video, the publishing (and music) industry will be able to point out that extending it to their media will be a small step now that the basic plumbing is in place. By acquiescing in this move, Mozilla makes it even more certain that this will happen.
And for anyone sceptical that the publishing industry would really want to impose DRM on general online texts – even on “ordinary” Web pages – remember this is the industry that not only wants people to pay for quoting "snippets" of text, and believes it is right to attack academics for distributing their own papers without permission, but also one that fought for years to prevent the visually disabled for gaining exceptions to copyright that would allow them to circumvent DRM so that they could use special reading software. Any industry that is prepared to kick the blind when they are down will have no compunction in doing the same to the general reader once it is wearing the right footwear. Mozilla has just given them a bigger boot.