Prelude: What the second issue of the INDICARE Monitor contains
Before I get into "vanishing media" I would like to start with an overview of what this second issue contains. It is the first one including contributions from external experts. Nynke Hendriks one of the experts, who converted the Creative Commons licenses into Dutch law reports of this experience, and Marc Fetscherin, one of the few DRM consumer researchers, who for the time being is visiting researcher at the University of California (UC) Berkeley, outlines his approach of stakeholder analysis taking the music industry as an example.

INDICARE has analysed the Final Report by the High Level Group on Digital Rights Management released 9th of July by the European Commission (Carsten Orwat), reflects about the future of Apple's iTunes music store in Europe, which started in June (Nicole Dufft), and our technical experts from Hungary discuss a particular issue of file sharing on P2P networks seldom addressed, namely the network bandwidth problem and the limits of filtering to cope with it (Kristóf Kerényi). Finally the editor contributes some ideas about "vanishing media" and DRM you can read in the following.

Introduction to vanishing media
Theories about black holes are basically about the fate of vanishing stars. Recently Stephen Hawkin‚s U-turn in this matter made it to the media (see e.g. Adam 2004, science correspondent of the Guardian, clearly explaining the subject). This made me think that the idea of vanishing stars might also be applied to media fading away when their time has come. This notion does not only refer to the lifetime of storage media and the problems to preserve paper, hard disks, CD-ROM etc., but also to media content. In the old days of analogue media when time had come and copyright had expired there was no halt to unlimited distribution. In the days of digital media, however, the idea of vanishing media is also linked to the enforcement of usage restrictions and the avoidance of illegal copying itself. In this sense vanishing media might even be seen as an interesting third type of DRM solution besides copy protection and forensic DRM. There is no theory of vanishing media yet, but there are some interesting cases – and of course I am eager to learn about more cases.

I am inclined to distinguish four types of vanishing media: (1) self-devouring read once media, (2) self-devouring media with a determined period of grace, (3) media with an extensible period of grace, and (4) media destruction by third parties.

Self-devouring read once media
William Gibson, author of Neuromancer, later wrote an introduction to his work "AGRIPPA, A Book of the Dead" describing it as „a longish poem to be designed by artist Dennis Ashbaugh and Œpublished‚ by art-guy Kevin Begos. Ashbaugh's design eventually included a supposedly self-devouring floppy-disk intended to display the text only once, then eat itself. Today, there seems to be some doubt as to whether any of these curious objects were ever actually constructed. I certainly don't have one myself. Meanwhile, though, the text escaped to cyberspace and a life of its own, which I found a pleasant enough outcome. But the free-range cyberspace versions are subject to bit-rot, it seems, so we've decided to offer it here with the correct line-breaks∑“ etc. (Gibson 2002). This case is interesting in many respects. In our context, the interesting lesson at the end of the day is: the „self-devouring“ approach has never been performed or did not work, and the poem has eventually been made publicly available to everyone.

Self-devouring media with a determined period of grace
Some of you might know EZ-D. EZ-D is almost the same as a conventional DVD, and works in all players, DVD drives and gaming systems designed to accept a standard DVD. The special thing is „that it has a 48 hour viewing window that begins when the disc is removed from its packaging. Consumers will then be able to enjoy the movie as many times as they wish during this time frame. After 48 hours of impeccable play, the DVD will no longer be readable by the DVD player“ (HighWheeler 2003). The new co-polymer degrades once exposed to air, becoming opaque rather than transparent (see Wikipaedia 2004). The EZ-D entry in Wikipedia also relates that the intended market for the EZ-D discs is „short-term hire and promotional deals“ and hints at the fact that EZ-D once unplayable can be recycled. EZ-D was based on a development by Flexplay, and it was tested by Buena Vista Home Entertainment Division of The Walt Disney Company in 2003. The e-shop of Buena Vista Home Entertainment for EZ-D discs is still operational. I doubt if this approach is a success, but actually I don‚t know. In our context the crucial question is if the 48 hours are used to copy the original to a DVD or to watch the movie. It would be interesting to learn more about consumer behaviour in this case.

Media with an extensible period of grace
The DIVX story is well told in Wikipedia, so I quote them at length: „DIVX (Digital Video Express) was an attempt, by Circuit City and an entertainment law firm, to create an alternative to video rental in the United States. (It is unrelated to and should not be confused with the video codec DivX ;-).) The idea was to sell customers a DIVX disc (similar to a DVD) at a low cost. This DIVX disc had a limited viewing period (generally 48 hours) that started after its initial viewing. After this period, the disc could be viewed by paying a continuation fee (generally $3.25). DIVX discs could only be played on special DVD players that needed to be connected to a phone line. After the DIVX disc was viewed, the disc could be kept for future viewing, resold, given away, or discarded. The physical disc was not altered in any way by playing it, only the account that the DIVX player ∑ (keeps, KB).“

„The DIVX rental system was created in 1998 in time for the holiday season and was discontinued in June of 1999 due to the costs of introducing the format as well as not being accepted by the general public. Over two years, the DIVX system was to be discontinued. Customers could still view all their DIVX discs and were given a $100 refund for every player that was purchased before June 16, 1999. All discs that were unsold at the end of the summer of 1999 were destroyed. The program officially cut off access to accounts on July 7, 2001...“ (Wikipedia 2004)

This story was also told in other words by Bruce Perens at the Munich DRM Conference (INDICARE Monitor reported about it). He called it a sad DRM story, explaining the disadvantages of proprietary systems creating lock-in situations. In the perspective of vanishing media the case is interesting because the whole media system vanished with the result that certain content was no longer available. This problem however is not only the outcome of commercial failure, in more general terms the short innovation cycles of consumer devices intrinsically bring about continuous casting aside of technology and consequently of content.

Media destruction by third parties
In the United States some politicians fiercely fight P2P file sharing by preparing legislation to allow for direct attacks on computers and content of assumed law-breakers trading (illegally) copyrighted works. Howard Berman achieved some resonance in 2002 with the idea to make „technological self-help measures“ legal (see Greene 2002). A year later Orrin Hatch (the one who recently presented the „Inducing Infringement of Copyrights Act“) suggested „that he might favour technology that can remotely destroy the computers of those who illegally download music from the Internet“ (see Mark 2003). Both are not exactly saying that media content found on consumers‚ computers should be destroyed; nevertheless it is one option among the many forms of attack we can think of. Joseph D. Schleimer gave an overview of what already could be done in 2001 (Schleimer 2001). He explicitly includes deleting files as an option: „A more direct approach would be to identify specific infringing files posted on a file-sharing system, initiate an upload of those particular files, and during the „handshake“ (when the uploader‚s computer is introducing itself), insert a program into the uploader‚s computer that blocks copying of the infringing file, deletes it, or replaces it with a cease-and-desist or decoy program“.

Bottom line
The term „vanishing media“ can be attributed to physical artefacts as well as to digital content which can be made inaccessible in many ways, by self-deletion, by third party destruction, or by discarded media systems. In all of these cases consumers are not sovereigns of what‚s happening, they may be reluctant to accept this determination by others and they see their sense of ownership harmed. The failure of DIVX and the fact that the ideas of Berman, Hatch and others remained ideas are telling. By the way it is surprising that all these things happen in the US and not in the EU. Is this the price for being at the cutting edge of the trial and error innovation process? Coming back to the „vanishing media“, there is no need to condemn self-devouring media. There are promotional forms of media like „previews“ where vanishing media could be welcome. Vanishing, recyclable media could also be an element of (media) ecology. Talking of ecology I would like to close with a remark on what I found in the Internet looking for „vanishing media“, a piece by an advertising expert of the tobacco industry writing about the ever decreasing media formats which can be used for cigarette advertisements (British-American Tobacco Company 1999).


About the author: Knud Böhle is researcher at the Institute for Technology Assessment and Systems Analysis (ITAS) at Research Centre Karlsruhe since 1986. Between October 2000 and April 2002 he was visiting scientist at the European Commission's Joint Research Centre in Seville (IPTS). He is specialised in Technology Assessment and Foresight of ICT and has led various projects. Currently he acts as editor of the INDICARE Monitor. Contact: + 49 7247 822989,

Status: first published in INDICARE Monitor Vol. 1, No 2, 30 July 2004; licensed under Creative Commons