Will We Live to See an End to Copy Protection?

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For this week’s Technologizer column over at, I said a few words in defense of the beleaguered set of technologies known as physical media. One of the points I bring up: Much digital media, including stuff like Kindle books and movies from Amazon, Apple, and others, is locked up with copy protection. I don’t object to that because I want to pirate anything; I object to it because it increases the likelihood that I eventually won’t be able to use content I buy on the devices I own. Will Amazon still be in the e-book business in twenty years and supporting the copy-protection it’s applied to today’s Kindle books? I hope so. But a lot can happen in two decades.

(MORE: Why I Already Miss Physical Media)

The happiest exception to the copy-protection rule is music. After years of selling tunes locked up with DRM, music download stores started selling non-hobbled files in 2008 and 2009. And you know what? The world didn’t come to an end for the companies that own music. Book publishers and movie companies are still clinging to copy protection, but it seems plausible that they’ll get over it. Eventually. With any luck.

For now, though, the best we can hope for are forms of copy protection that are a little less about preventing you from doing things with media you’ve bought, and a little more about allowing you to do more things. UltraViolet is an upcoming technology from an industry consortium called the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem. It’s designed to let you buy a movie once—on Blu-ray, as a download, or as a stream—and get the rights to watch it in other forms forever. It’s a potential solution to the Goldfinger issue that my friend Mark Evanier has often written about.

UltraViolet sounds promising, but Apple and Disney aren’t on board, which will leave gaping holes in device support and content availability. And getting this stuff right is hard: Microsoft’s inaccurately-named PlaysForSure copy protection failed in part because it didn’t work on the iPod, and in part because it just didn’t work very well, period. Unless UltraViolet works well and is popular enough to hang around for the long haul, it’s a temporary Band-Aid, not a permanent fix for the DRM conundrum.

I want to be sure that the digital media I buy won’t become obsolescent. Period. So I’m still hoping I’ll live long enough to see an end to copy protection. I intend to be around for a few more decades, and I’m patient…

MORE: U.K. Revises Music Copyright Law for MP3 Era (Finally)