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Technology

Vista's restrictions highlight digital rights debate

February 23, 2007

The debate and confusion over Puretracks' new MP3 music library and whether it's free of anti-copying locks that prevent people from putting their tunes on any device - computer, iPod or even cellphone, for example - has shone a spotlight on the best way to give people access to their content.

The attention revisits questions raised after Microsoft Corp. launched the latest version of its flagship Windows operating system on Jan. 30, which is in turn fuelling discussion about the ownership and use of digital media.

DRM or digital rights management is a catch-all term for a broad range of technologies used by copyright owners to control how a piece of data, software or hardware can be used by others. The measure is commonly used to restrict the ability to copy or transfer music or movie files such as those bought from sites like Apple Inc.'s iTunes Store or burned from a computer to a CD or DVD.

Digital rights advocates and observers of content sectors such as the music and movie industries have condemned what they feel is a restrictive DRM regime that takes control of content away from consumers and treats them as though they are thieves or potential criminals.

On the other side of the equation, Microsoft says it has no hand in setting content controls and must comply with industry standards for DRM and security. Some observers agree with that claim, blaming copyright-focused content industries that they say refuse to recognize technology has given people choices they never had in the past.

Microsoft defends content protections

Vista's approach to managing hardware and the sum of rights Microsoft grants the operating system's users lie at the heart of much of the debate swirling around the software.

For example, Windows Vista complies with a proprietary DRM technology known as the high-bandwidth definition content protection (HDCP) standard developed by Intel Corp. If a person decides to use their computer to play a high-definition DVD that employs the technology and it detects the system doesn't use HDCP-protected video or audio connections, the audio and video quality is automatically downgraded.

"That's an advantage," Elliot Katz, a product manager with Microsoft Canada told CBC News Online. "In Windows XP, it wouldn't have played."

Katz stressed that Microsoft doesn't specify the HDCP or other DRM standards and suggested if the same disc were put into a non-compliant DVD player, it wouldn't play at all.

Michael Burke, the program manager on the Windows Vista team at Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Wash., describing Vista's technologies as an evolution in the way that music and video are handled.

"The content protection mechanisms that are in Windows Vista are really, really new," Burke told CBC News Online.

"It's something we need to do to be compliant with requirements content makers and owners have. It's part of being a good partner and it lets people take advantage of high definition content."

Burke argued that without such restrictions, content makers would have little incentive to make or let people play music, movies or other materials on their computers.

"With no content protection in place, it's not a win-win situation for anyone. We've struck a good compromise."

Restrictions cause harm, critics say

Some others don't see it that way.

"Anything that restricts people's ability to view the stuff that they've purchased legally is a bad thing," said Sam Punnett, the president of FAD Research Inc., a Toronto-based interactive media and market research firm.

Punnett has produced studies of technology's impact on Canada's content industries for the federal government.

He argues that locking down music, movies and other media with technological and legal fetters like Vista ultimately drives consumers away and harms the industry.

"It directs people to find ways to avoid it, avoid the hassle," he said.

Cory Doctorow — a former director of European affairs for the non-profit U.S.-based Electronic Frontier Foundation technology rights advocacy — criticized Microsoft's compliance with Hollywood and the recording industry.

"Don't buy Vista. It's toxic waste," Doctorow, a Toronto-born editor of the popular blog Boing Boing, told CBC News Online.

"It seems pretty clear that Microsoft has decided to sacrifice functionality to gain credibility with the studios."

According to Doctorow, the content restrictions are indicative of the approach that Microsoft takes to all of its interactions with users of its software. He suggested people switch to an Apple machine — which he noted would offer a marginal difference in light of the content restrictions built into the iTunes software — or the open source operating system Linux.

"Microsoft's licensing deal and its end-user license agreement is pretty telling. It's hard to imagine an end-user license agreement that is more restrictive," Doctorow said. "If they put this on the front of their [Vista] box … people wouldn't buy it."

Licensing agreement scrutinized

Debate about Microsoft's end-user license agreement [EULA] has been brought sharply into focus by University of Auckland computer science professor Peter Gutmann's paper, A Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection.

In it, the professor argues that on an individual basis, the measures Microsoft has implemented incur "considerable costs in terms of system performance, system stability, technical support overhead, and hardware and software cost."

But Gutmann argues that the impact is more far-reaching than that by virtue of the dominance that Microsoft's operating systems have in the personal computer industry, and will ultimately affect everyone, including people who don't use a Windows-based PC.

Microsoft's Burke said he thinks there has been some confusion about the end-user license agreement.

"One of the good things we've done with the EULA is that we've put it into less legalese so there may be greater interest in it and perhaps more people are reading it."

He said that has led to people misinterpreting the DRM measures and security features that automatically remove malware such as spyware and viruses and warn people when they are about to visit risky websites.

Concerns justified, law expert says

University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist, disagrees and has posted a scathing analysis on his website.

Microsoft's licensing agreement and operation "point to an unprecedented loss of consumer control over their own personal computers," Geist writes. "In the name of shielding consumers from computer viruses and protecting copyright owners from potential infringement, Vista seemingly wrestles control of the 'user experience' from the user."

Microsoft is not entirely to blame for the situation, Geist said, emphasizing the restrictions demanded by content producers — film studio, music labels and others.

"They're being dictated to," Geist told CBC News Online.

"I believe, as others do, that they could have negotiated a better deal on behalf of their millions of customers. They've degraded the quality of the output at the behest of Hollywood."

The easiest way to resolve the debate is for Microsoft to sell a version of Vista that lets people modify and use the operating system however they want, Doctorow said.

"Microsoft is not offering a flavour of Vista where they say, for an extra $50 we won't treat you a like a criminal. They're not offering a flavour of Vista where they say for an extra $50 we'll let you make changes to the software so it runs the way you want it to."

Burke said that many of the features that come with Vista and associated software like its security and internet software can be easily managed by the consumer.

"Users have every ability and every right to turn these features off if they want to," Burke said. "We don't think most people will."

Eliot Katz of Microsoft Canada agreed. "The vast majority of people want those protections."

Future of DRM questioned

Whether or not people end up using Vista's security or multimedia features, the debate over DRM has expanded beyond the way that the operating system handles it.

Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs shone a spotlight on the issue when he called on the music recording industry to abolish DRM.

"This is clearly the best alternative for consumers, and Apple would embrace it in a heartbeat," he wrote in an open letter published Feb. 6 on Apple's website.

"If the big four music companies would license Apple their music without the requirement that it be protected with a DRM, we would switch to selling only DRM-free music on our iTunes store."

The major labels — Universal, Sony BMG, Warner and EMI — have nothing to lose, Jobs argued. "DRMs haven't worked, and may never work, to halt music piracy."

Jobs had an incentive for issuing the letter: European regulators recently gave Apple until September to make music downloaded from the iTunes store playable on devices other than iPods.

But the call has touched a nerve with observers and advocates, and EMI is reportedly in talks with online music services to offer DRM-free music.

Even Microsoft founder Bill Gates has said DRM is too complex for most people.

In a meeting with prominent technology bloggers at Microsoft's headquarters in Redmond, Wash., on Dec. 14, 2006, Gates reportedly recommended that people simply rip their music tracks from CDs if they wanted to transfer songs between devices or computers.

"I think DRM will probably eventually go away," FAD Research's Punnett said.

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