Tim Berners-Lee on Why HTML5 "Needs" DRM

A couple of week ago, I discussed the awful idea of adding DRM to the official HTML5 standard, and where that would lead us. More recently, Tim Berners-Lee wrote a piece about openness that included the following comment: The W3C community is...


A couple of week ago, I discussed the awful idea of adding DRM to the official HTML5 standard, and where that would lead us. More recently, Tim Berners-Lee wrote a piece about openness that included the following comment:

The W3C community is currently exploring Web technology that will strike a balance between the rights of creators and the rights of consumers. In this space in particular, W3C seeks to lower the overall proprietary footprint and increase overall interoperability, currently lacking in this area.

That's an extremely odd comment, since it divides up the online world up into active creators and passive consumers. That's precisely the framing that the copyright industry adopts in an attempt to minimise the rights of Internet users, and to belittle their role. As a result, I fired off a quick tweet that tried to encapsulate something along those lines in 140 characters:

The many meanings of #Open – http://bit.ly/1abhbAE @timberners_lee has clearly spent too long in US, & allowed copyright to warp his vision

As people who follow me on Twitter, identi.ca or Google+ will know, I tweet quite a lot (warning: may contain understatement), so I thought no more of it. So I was slightly surprised to received the following comment 13 minutes later:

@glynmoody How do you mean, exactly? I was just pointing out many diff meanings of the word. Warped?

Having apparently caught Sir Tim's attention for a second or two, I thought I'd seize the opportunity, and fired off the following tweets in rapid succession:

@timberners_lee "will strike a balance between the rights of creators and the rights of consumers": this isn't the core function of the Web

@timberners_lee Web is a platform – one of the most powerful every invented; making it another place where copyright sets agenda is folly

@timberners_lee adding DRM to HTML5 fundamentally subverts the key feature of Web: its openness.

@timberners_lee that will have terrible knock-on effects: it will weaken free software, open data and open content by legitimising closed sw

@timberners_lee the Web & free software are the 2 pillars of openness: adding DRM will destroy one of them purely because of copyright cos.

@timberners_lee if you go ahead with DRM in HTML5 I foresee a really terrible schism between free software community & W3C; would be tragic

As you can see from the complete thread, quite a few people had joined in by this time, sometimes expressing themselves forcefully. I get the impression Berners-Lee was a little taken aback by this vehemence, because a few hours later he wrote a post on the W3C blog entitled "On Encrypted Video and the Open Web":

There has been a lot of response to the announcement that W3C considers content protection for video as in-scope for discussion in the HTML Working Group. In this post I can touch on some of the arguments.

We hear the outburst of criticism (and some support) for W3C's recent rechartering of the HTML Working Group that put content protection for video in-scope for discussion. We hear that criticism as a signal that many people value W3C's voice, and feel betrayed by this decision. I want to make it clear that I and all the staff at W3C are as passionate as ever about the open Web. Also, none of us as users like certain forms of content protection such as DRM at all. Or the constraints it places on users and developers. Or the over-severe legislation it triggers in countries like the USA.

That's a promising opening, since it talks about the open Web, and agrees that DRM is something that people hate. But it goes downhill from there. Take this, for example:

we put the user first, but different users have different preferences. Putting the user first doesn't help us to satisfy users' possibly incompatible wants: some Web users like to watch big-budget movies at home, some Web users like to experiment with code. The best solution will be one that satisfies all of them, and we're still looking for that. If we can't find that, we're looking for the solutions that do least harm to these and other expressed wants from users, authors, implementers, and others in the ecosystem.

Putting users first is great, but this sets up a false dichotomy between those who "like to watch big-budget movies at home" and those who want an open Web, as if the former must lose if the latter win. But it's ridiculous to suggest that companies like Netflix will stop streaming video over the Internet if the Web does not include DRM. It may do it with proprietary Web plugins, or it might even insist that people use standalone code, but that's not a problem – it is exactly how it's been done in the past.

Moreover, the open Web will exist and thrive even if some people choose to use proprietary code, just as open source thrives despite the existence of some closed-source applications. The only people who might conceivably lose out if DRM isn't included in HTML is the W3C, who won't be able to control exactly how those non-Web parts operate. But that's true now, anyway, and I can't believe that the W3C is so power crazed that it wants to sacrifice the open Web solely to extend its empire a little further.

These points don't hold water either:

Some arguments for inclusion take this form: if content protection of some kind has to be used for videos, it is better for it to be discussed in the open at W3C, better for everyone to use an interoperable open standard as much as possible, and better for it to be framed in a browser which can be open source, and available on a general purpose computer rather than a special purpose box.

Why should the W3C, until now predicated on an open Web, be worried about lack of compatibility between DRM? That's a feature, not a bug, because it makes DRM even less appealing, and increases the pressure not to use it. If a single, compatible DRM standard existed for the Web, every copyright company would use it without a second's thought, because it was the standard, supported in most browsers, and there would therefore be no downside at all. By creating a standard, the W3C would guarantee that DRM lived on far longer than it might otherwise. Given Berners-Lee's opening comments about how he hates DRM, that it just a daft way of proceeding.

Indeed, he repeats his dislike here, in this deeply troubling paragraph:

No one likes DRM as a user, wherever it crops up. It is worth thinking, though, about what it is we do not like about existing DRM-based systems, and how we could possibly build a system which will be a more open, fairer one than the actual systems which we see today. If we, the programmers who design and build Web systems, are going to consider something which could be very onerous in many ways, what can we ask in return?

Again, why on earth is Berners-Lee even thinking about a quid pro quo? There is literally nothing that can replace the open Web, and even discussing some kind of deal is hugely dangerous. That's because it suggests openness is optional, and that the W3C is willing to be bought off if the price is right and/or the proffered trinkets are gaudy enough. "What can we ask in return?" is a truly terrible question to ask.

As I suggested in my initial tweet above, I can't help feeling that living in the US has warped Berners-Lee's perception of the world, and that he has started to see things through the optic of the powerful copyright lobbies there. They constantly pump out the propaganda that without DRM artists will starve, but the example of Apple dropping DRM on its music - hardly a marginal case – shows that's simply not true. And as I've pointed out repeatedly, there is also plenty of independent research that suggests those who share files online spend more online. That's supported by the fact that every copyright industry is booming despite the alleged damage that piracy is causing it.

My thesis about copyright-induced myopia receives some support from another tweet that Berners-Lee posted in response to this comment from Ian Davis, in which he echoes warnings from the EFF:

@timberners_lee @glynmoody if DRM is compatible with an open web then why stop at video? Why not DRM for html texts or javascript?

To which Berners-Lee replied:

@iand @glynmoody Because only movies have the massive outlay which suggests protecting them, and DRM is a pain for everyone..

That seems to suggest that he believes DRM will only be used by the film industry, because of the "massive outlay" supposedly involved. Leaving aside all the issues of creative accounting used by the film industry to inflate their costs and hide their profits, this is a terribly naïve view of how the copyright industry works. The idea that a recording company selling an MP3 for £1.99, or a publisher selling a book for £2.99, would just not bother to protect products with DRM if it were part of HTML5, and therefore that DRM isn't really a big issue for the Web, is astonishing. It's also deeply worrying that someone with as much power as Berners-Lee to make or break the Web doesn't see what the problem is – both with that argument, and with DRM at a deeper level beyond mere inconvenience.

The good news is that Berners-Lee is now beginning to engage more with the Web community about this misguided decision. His attempt to justify it – weak though it is – shows that he recognises he hasn't done that so far. That means we need to continue to explain why DRM would destroy the Web as we know it, and turn into something little better than AOL 2.0. Helpfully, Berners-Lee lists some places where we might do that:

The conversation has just started. The Restricted Media Community Group is one forum for discussing this. The [email protected] list is good for general Web architecture, and there is the HTML Working Group and a Web Copyright Community Group. And there are comments to Jeff's posting or this post though I may not be able to answer them all.

Meanwhile, I'll keep tweeting in the hope that I might one day get another reply...

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and on Google+

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