Germans tackle digital rights management and stumble onto a taxing solution

By Stuart McClure, InfoWorld |  Business

MANY OF YOU may have missed some important news during the Thanksgiving holiday. For those of you who were too engrossed by America's inability to count holes in punchcard ballots, take solace in the notion that other great nations are struggling with powerful forces that could rend global society asunder at any minute.

We are talking about a German court's decision in favor of the Central Agency for Private Copying Rights (ZPÜ in German) against Hewlett-Packard. The decision requires HP to pay copyright royalties for every CD-recorder it sold in Deutschland from about 1998 onwards. (Here's a link to some commentary on the event: www.gema.de/eng/updates/pm_stuttgart.html.)

What does this have to do with security, many of you wonder? A lot, we think. We've been biting our tongues throughout the digital rights management (DRM) discourse going on throughout the world, but we thought this week might be the right time to let loose.

Most security folk are resigned to the fact that machine-readable content can never be reliably secured (that is, copy-protected). We've seen everyone from the movie industry (DVD, meet DeCSS [De-Content Scrambling System]), to the music recording industry (Metallica, meet Napster), the publishing industry (Stephen King, meet ... well, meet your tightwad fans), and all other manner of content creators/purveyors caught in the onslaught of flagrant copying that seems to be taking the world by storm.

Why can't our brave technologists stop this activity? The standard line is that once you allow content to enter the machines, there is no reliable way to prevent the owners of the machines from doing what they will. We recently had first-hand experience with this phenomenon when exploring the wonderful world of software license cracking. Programmers have employed all manner of vehicles in vain attempts to dissuade those who would voraciously copy their wares. All have failed miserably when faced with a dedicated opponent. (The hardware dongle met with some brief success until software publishers finally admitted that they were too costly and tortuous for all involved.)

We think the German courts may have unwittingly stumbled onto something here: If you can't beat 'em, hit 'em in some other area of the pocketbook when they aren't looking.

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