Saturday, April 21, 2007

Google Video DRM

With the introduction of its new copy-restriction video service, Google has diverged from its corporate ethos. For the first time in the company's history, it has released a product that is designed to fill the needs of someone other than Google's users.
Here's how the Google Video DRM works: when you download a restricted video from Google, it locks that video to your account and software player. Every time you want to play the video, your player has to communicate with Google to determine whether you are currently permitted to play it; if the player doesn't get the answer it's looking for, it won't play the video. The specifics of how this works aren't available -- Google hasn't published any details of how the security is implemented, committing the cardinal sin of "security through obscurity."

The video is encrypted (scrambled), which means that it is unlawful for competitors of Google (or free/open source software authors) to make their own players for the video, even if they can figure out how to decrypt it.
Other DRM vendors, like Apple, have threatened to sue competitors for making players that can play their proprietary file-formats.

Why Has Google Done This?
The question is, why has Google done this? There's no Google customer who woke up this morning looking for a way to do less with her video. There's no Google customer who lacked access to this video if he wanted it (here's a tip: enter the name of a show or movie into Google and add the word "torrent" to the search, and within seconds Google will have delivered to you a link through which you can download practically everything in the Google DRM catalog, for free, without DRM -- although it may be illegal for the person you get it from to send it to you).

That's not to say that there's nothing problematic about getting your video through Google this way. But the problems of the inability of the entertainment industry to adapt to the Internet are the entertainment industry's problems, not Google's. Google's really good at adapting to the Internet -- that's why it's capitalized at $100 billion while the whole of Hollywood only turns over $60 billion a year.

But once Google starts brokering the relationship between Hollywood and their audience, this becomes Google's problem too, which means that all the absurd, business-punishing avenues pursued by Hollywood are now Google's business, as well.

It appears that the main reason Google got involved in DRM was to compete with Microsoft and Yahoo, both of whom have created online video stores with movies and shows from major entertainment companies. These companies demand that their works be locked away in wrappers that restrict users in ways that have nothing to do with copyright law and so if you want a license from them, you've got to play ball, even though no customer wants this. You can't exactly put your offerings online under a banner that says, "Now with fewer features!"

This Time, Google's Users Don't Come First
This isn't the first time Google's had a major industry demand that it design a product in a way that didn't put Google's users front and center.
As documented in John Battelle's excellent book The Search, there was a strong push on Google in the early days to adopt graphic advertising banners for the site. All of Google's competitors were doing it, making a fortune at it, and no one wanted to advertise via text-ads even though its users clearly found them them less invasive than graphic banners.

But Google hewed to a brilliant and successful strategy of never putting a supplier's need above its searchers' needs. This, more than Google's controversial "Don't be evil" motto is the true force driving its most successful offerings. Google refused to graphic ads and only accepted ads from suppliers who shared its view of how to deliver a quality service to its users.

Abandoning this is a terrible idea and one that's exacerbated by design decisions in Google's DRM technology. The outcome is a Google service that opens the company and its users to unprecedented new risk.

Liberally taken from Richard Forno
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