The impossibility of DRM: Russell's Law

"I ca'n't believe that!" said Alice.

"Ca'n't you?" the Queen said in a pitying tone. "Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes."

Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said "one ca'n't believe impossible things."

"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Back in the days of Bubble 1.0, I was a full-time cryptographic engineer. This meant that I had to know enough about cryptographic protocols to implement them in software without breaking them. This is not as easy as it sounds, which is why virtually all software packages have periodic security update patches. The companies I worked for at that time were typical Bubble 1.0 companies, which meant that they were trying to come up with the next "killer app", something that would cost us nothing to make and for which everyone would pay us gobs of money. So part of my job became explaining to various people why cryptographic protocols could not solve one problem or another. The most common recurring theme in these ideas for money-making crypto apps was copy protection -- preventing people from making digital copies of digital data.

I explained my reasons for thinking this to be an impossible task so many times that I had it boiled down to a single sentence: You cannot encrypt past the intended recipient. I even began to egotistically refer to it as Russell's Law. Originally, it referred to encrypted email, when someone suggested trying to enforce a "For Your Eyes Only" prohibition. This cannot be done with cryptography. If you can't trust the person who is supposed to be able to read your message, you're hosed. It seemed as obvious to me as the old saying: If an attacker has physical access to your computer, it's already compromised. (If anyone knows who first said this one, let me know.)

Fast forward to 2007, and the current debate about the merits of DRM (Digital Rights Management). (If you don't know what DRM is, you can read Wired's How to Explain DRM to Your Dad.) What's the point of DRM? It intends to prevent people from doing prohibited things with digital data after they have received it. It tries to do this via various cryptographic protocols. In other words, it's a violation of Russell's Law. It's trying to achieve the impossible.

Want proof? DVDs had an encryption method built into them, as an attempt to control in what part of the world each DVD could be viewed. That was defeated, by the intended recipients. The lesson learned from this by the Big Media Producers was that they needed bigger, better, stronger encryption for the next new standards, Blu-Ray and HD-DVD hi-resolution video discs. Guess what? Not long after release, those protocols were broken, too! Russell's Law is still just as valid as ever.

Much has been made of Steve Jobs' blogging where he makes a good case for abandonment of DRM, but it troubles me that he still talks as if DRM is something that can successfully be implemented. Much more interesting is the response from Macrovision, a DRM vendor. If you want to know why I quoted Lewis Carroll at the top, read this and imagine the Queen speaking to Alice. Better yet, read Daring Fireball's translation of Macrovision's response.

But the beat goes on -- Bill Gates probably understands the validity of Russell's Law, but Microsoft is still creating new DRM schemes. I'm sure this one, like all the others, will make money being sold to companies who believe six impossible things before breakfast. I'm also sure that it will be defeated, and quickly.


Today I ripped: Gordon Jenkins / Manhattan Tower

My first encounter with Gordon Jenkins was as a teenaged Harry Nilsson fan back in the '70s. Harry did something unheard of at the time, recording an album full of old standards like As Time Goes By and Makin' Whoopee, backed by a full orchestra. (Obviously, it's not unheard of now, but I don't think it's fair to blame Harry for Rod Stewart's indulgences.) The orchestra was conducted by Gordon Jenkins, who I later found out had an incredible career, working with Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Judy Garland, and many others. He also collaborated with the Weavers, most famously on Leadbelly's Goodnight, Irene.

Suffice it to say that over the years I have become suitably impressed by Gordon Jenkins. So, when I spotted an LP credited to him at a garage sale, I snapped it up. The album, pictured here, is Manhattan Tower and California: Two Musical Narratives (Decca DLP 8011). When I got around to listening to it as part of my vinyl digitization project, I found that the "musical narrative" form is something that reminds me a great deal of early Disney work -- musical motifs under a storyline narration, occasionally breaking into small choral or solo songs.

About halfway through the first narrative, though, I heard something very familiar -- the song New York's My Home, one I have always known through Ray Charles' rendition. Initially, I thought Jenkins must have incorporated it into the narrative. A bit of research (all right, Googling) leads me to believe, instead, that Manhattan Tower is, in fact, the original source of this song. The album itself is dated 1949, and the hit version of the song, by Sammy Davis, Jr., did not come out until the 1950s. And the credited author of the song, on both Davis' and Charles' versions, is Gordon Jenkins. So, finding the original version of it was a nice treat.

One side note: barring the discovery of some other forgotten, buried treasure, this album represents the oldest LP I own. As I mentioned, the copyright on this album is 1949, and according to Wikipedia, the LP was first introduced in 1948.


New blogging topic: Digitizing vinyl

I've been looking for something interesting to write about, as I while away my time digitizing my extensive collection of vinyl recordings (a. k. a. "records"). The small voice inside my head, which sounds astonishingly like the small voice inside Wil Wheaton's head, sez, "Duh! Blog about what you're doing!". True that. The Vinyl Digitization Obsession (VDO) process itself is fascinating, and quite blog-worthy.

I'll get into technical details later -- details most of you will probably hate, since I still find Linux, command-line utilities, and shell scripts to be my best friends when it comes to getting anything done on a computer. For the initial post on the topic, I'd like to ruminate on the pleasures I've discovered in the activity.

Ripping a CD is not really enjoyable, but it is fast. I thought at first that "ripping" my albums would be tedious, since it has to occur in real-time. But that has become its charm. I have been listening to albums that I haven't touched in ages. Reacquainting myself with music that defined me as a young man. (Those ones are kinda scratchy.) Discovering albums that I bought at the end of the vinyl bell-curve that never got played at all due to the overlapping start of the compact disc bell-curve.

As I slog through them, I've found quite a few that deserve wider recognition. That's where the blogworthiness comes in. (I'm not sure I spelled blogworthiness correctly, even though I'm reasonably certain I made the word up.) As certain LPs catch my ear, I'll note them in the blog.

As we speak, I'm digitizing John Lennon's Mind Games. I don't ever recall noticing before that the song Out the blue is such a blatant rewrite of Sexy Sadie. I guess John was lucky he didn't have the same music publisher that John Fogerty did.