In the year 2002 Digital Rights Management has become a pejorative noun phrase among my friends, libertarians included. In these pages I will be expounding, and perhaps pushing, ideas that have no better name than Digital Rights Management. I intend to present these ideas in a strict libertarian framework.

The technology I describe is quite different from most DRM proposals. I will say up front, however, that there are severe, perhaps insurmountable technical problems with my ideas that are shared, I believe, with the better known software proposals.

In broad outline, these are ideas to enable a considerable variety of voluntary arrangements between the content owner and user—arrangements that can be enforced largely by technical means. The libertarian slant is that these schemes are voluntary and do not require new legislation. They would, however, depend on significant penetration of personal computers equipped at least with novel software, and most likely hardware.

While copyright law has served well and content producers and consumers have adapted to it and flourished, it may be at the end of its rope. The schemes envisioned here are not patterned after copyright law. They presume mainly technical means and some contract law. Perhaps Jessica Litman has a better idea.

The first element of the solution is a system architecture within the personal computer that supports a variety of interests within one computer, that is owned by the end user. This architecture depends to a degree on new hardware which may be along the lines proposed by the Trusted Computer Platform Alliance (TCPA). Palladium plans by Microsoft hint at similar features.

Copyright law has produced several useful, but inflexible patterns of content distribution. Contrasted to paying to see a movie in a theater, a purchased copyrighted book can be passed on to other users whereupon the previous owner of the copy looses access. That has its logic for physical copies but it would be a pity to limit the world of bits to so few patterns of distribution.

One objection often heard to early and anticipated DRM practices is that the content owners will arbitrarily limit the options of the user. Some seem to propose that distribution schemes must be narrowly limited and mandated by law. I do not subscribe to the idea that groups are unable to come to mutually agreeable rights over content in an open market. The content owner must respect the wishes of his customer if he is to make any sales.

Fair use is a doctrine that was recently cobbled onto copyright law precisely because the earlier literal reading of the law precluded obviously useful behavior; behavior that on the average benefited everyone. I fear that trying to solve distribution problems for content by patching copyright law will work poorly for all parties.

The Road Show

First you invite an emissary from the content owner to your computer to negotiate. He looks around and decides that this is a safe place to put on the show. He states conditions that both you and perhaps your counsel (a program) can understand. You load a performance or a movie into your computer, perhaps at a noticeable cost. The performance(s) proceeds. Neither you nor the content owner is at risk of the other violating the contract. The digital contract law is enforced automatically. The worst that can happen is that you don’t like the show. The content owner is at risk if you manage to defeat the physical tamper resistance of your computer.

Here are some possible deals that might well be mutually agreeable:

It seems difficult to patch copyright law to provide these new flexibilities. The new world that beckons is too different.
Other thoughts
The Committee for Economic Development has produced a report that raises many interesting and relevant issues that I do not address. Some of those issues may have technical solutions.

Here is fascinating discussion with Jack Valenti on DCMA and its ramifications. Valenti appears very intelligent, yet ignorant of software issues.

Another DRM players: Digital Transmission Content Protection; IBM’s xCP which is connected (somehow) with CPRM stuff.

An interesting background article.