Dramatic progress leaves us wanting more, and so INDICARE's worthy and excellent first State-of-the-Art Report (Helberger et. al 2004) can use a good pounding. With two revisions scheduled and handbooks on DRM for consumers and small businesses expected, it would be nice if the sorry state of DRM truly improved by March 2006. There is every reason to hope, but unlike the premium movie features trusted to DRM, a happy ending might not be in the script. At least this exceptionally well-mannered and articulate document makes it more likely, exemplifying the fine spirit of informed dialogue that puts the "INDI" in INDICARE.

Of unfortunate DRM circumstances
Some observers of the issues surrounding Digital Rights Management have believed, in many cases for ten years or more, that this is possibly the single most important issue of our time with the potential to shape history by ushering in enduring "rules of the game" for electronic publication and subsequent use. Great faith was placed in technology when America's anti-circumvention approach became internationally adopted by WIPO WCT/WPPT signatories leading to our present regimen making it illegal in most cases to circumvent digital content protection technologies (see Merrill 2004a). Since the technology of DRM is still in its early stages, such faith might have been ill-founded. Aside from inherent technical difficulties, there is the need for society to perform a systems analysis on how we communicate among ourselves, as well as the age-old distortions caused by incumbent's very powerful special interests. In this case, any firm in the business of DRM solutions is bound to be impressive on many technical levels, albeit the pressing issues of whether any DRM protection has worked yet or whether a security solution can be expected to be developed capable of being effective in the future. One view of digital security regards protection schemes as virtually doomed as soon as their features become known to the hacker community, which is the bias of this reviewer.

The SOTA Report avoids coming out and saying that all protection schemes thus far have been a failure once their features became known. Chapter 2 of the SOTA Report adds the separate hidden message that the European Commission has known for ten years what the problem is and that its best efforts have not prevented today's unfortunate DRM circumstances. This attracted mention on by Knud Böhle when he asked, "does the 'European paradox' apply to DRM research too?" while describing his reading experience of the Report's Chapter 2 (Böhle 2004). But the Report faces a paradox of its own.

Is the State-of-the-Art Report yet another cry in the wind?
The impartiality that was the goal of the SOTA Report has now been achieved. So what? This reviewer described it elsewhere as "One of the most informative documents ever written about Digital Rights Management." (Merrill 2004b). Who will read it? One might wish the world to be acutely aware that digital permissions and security on line could form the basis for the "new world order" far more than overt cultural philosophies or dogmas. DRM at least rivals global warming as one of the hugely important things that can vastly damage the conditions for human life on Earth. Unlike hideous weapons to which great attention is paid, apathy and ignorance cause DRM to be of distant concern like the putative effects of carbon emissions. So is the State-of-the-Art Report yet another cry in the wind? Let us hope not and shape our endeavours to let its informed dialogue be a solid platform for significant progress to be made.

As an Internet type, I feel compelled to share my bias. I write a weekly column on intellectual property rights news of relevance to content owners in the music industry. I am especially sympathetic to IP rights holders because of the writers and other creative people I have known personally, none of whom have been made rich by their efforts. I am an ardent contributor to the definitional TRU efforts of the Digital Media Project, as described in the SOTA Report and at in an interview with Leonardo Chiariglione (2004). I am both an opponent and a supporter of the notable work done by Lawrence Lessig, Fred von Lohmann and Cory Doctorow. Because of my news function as a writer, I scan EFF and legal news regularly, often regretting that voices I consider overly partial to cleartext and hackers do the best job crying out on this important issue. With regards to the SOTA Report's treatment of "Interoperability" I side with DMP's response to the EC DRM HLG (HLG 2004); this too might be a cry in the wind.

Between generalities and sad-but-true specifics about the state of today's DRM
Indeed the SOTA Report can be considered to oscillate between generalities such as "interoperability" and sad-but-true specifics about the state of today's DRM and the need for improvement. A subsequent INDICARE article calls into question whether "digital rights management" as a phrase is not itself such an over-generality (see Tóth 2004). This reviewer is most struck with frustration at the Report's repetition about the importance of "transparency" in consumer contracts since this highlights both present social ills as well as a daunting future challenge. Although the possibility of granular licensing for individual content licenses was thought as one of the great potentials of electronic commerce for at least a decade, the fact is that most consumer contracts and licensing are only consensual by fiction. In our DMP work, several TRUs relate to respect for terms and conditions; these are included with an emphasis on the fact just stated. To think that the Report's list of items such as "affordability" or "ease of use" can do better would be folly. As if all this is not depressing enough, we can come to the definitively important challenge of better defining "access" since continued access to content and the ability to do things with that content is what the underlying issue is all about. Thus the emphasis of EFF types on cleartext and their often bombastic confidence that all digital security will continue to be hacked. The rules for electronic content need to do better than to rely on malfunctions and defeats for our future freedoms.

The task of DMP and INDICARE compared
The Digital Media Project has it easy since our fondness for technological solutions brings simplicity that is missing from the scene today. It is easier to start afresh with plans for a wish list that includes both security and advanced End-User usages. INDICARE does not have this luxury. If the envisioned DMP platform comes along, that would be wonderful, but it does not change the issues of other DRM technologies that choose to do things a different way. Since DRM is the scope of INDICARE, future revisions of the SOTA Report will most likely be forced to document continuing problems and unresolved issues posed by ever-more-numerous DRM technologies. It might be better to think of the Report in terms of the "stalemate" described in DMP's Digital Media Manifesto (Digital Media Project 2003). While DMP attempts to break the stalemate through standardisation, INDICARE has produced what could be considered the first objectively impartial prose document that can be considered to be post-stalemate in the sense that it opens up the discussion on a much better level for "informed dialogue".

As can be seen from the tone of this review, it is easy to be partisan and stay focused while pushing a clearly defined agenda and set of views. It takes far more skill and thoughtfulness to render into prose what the authors of the State-of-the-Art Report accomplished by balancing views, staying polite, and avoiding what could be considered ranting and raving. This review could be considered a rant by many, although its slant is meant to achieve brevity. The State-of-the-Art Report's authors invite comment and this reviewer expects to make more detailed comments available. For example, in overly brief form, one paragraph was written in partisan shorthand, the discussion of REL could be considered overoptimistic, and the discussion of fingerprinting appears to omit important features of that technology. But these are trivial as objections and only important as the sort of fine-tuning commentators might hope to provide. This reviewer especially hopes that a spirit of community and informed dialogue will cause a variety of stakeholders to comment on the Report, as requested, enabling further revisions to achieve progress and improvement. The first step was a big one.

Bottom line
The first State-of-the-Art Report was a good one. Now that this post-stalemate step has begun, one hopes major stakeholders will join in adding their voices to this enterprise that could so critically improve the future use of digital content.


About the author: Philip Merrill writes the weekly ArtsWatch column for and is an active contributor to the Digital Media Project. The opinions expressed reflect his personal views only and not those of any organization. Contact:

Status: first posted 21.01.2005; included in INDICARE Monitor, Vol. 1, No 8, 28 January 2005; licensed under Creative Commons