The BBC Mis­understands DRM

With the furore over the BBC's unfair use of DRM in its iPlayer, one would expect them to know what DRM was. Apparently, they don't.

(At least, their technology editor doesn't.) BBC News has an article about “a new method of DRM” being used by indigenous Australians to make it easier to respect their societal customs. The thing is, the system as the article describes it is not DRM.

DRM is where a file (a document, some software, or a piece of audio or video) is designed to be unreadable without a key (a cipher—like a password). Crucially, the key must remain unknown to (or unusable by) the file's intended audience.

The DRM acts as a gatekeeper, and only allows access to the file (lowers the drawbridge) if the audience can demonstrate that they are entitled to access the file. The audience may only access the file if the key-holder allows it.

Making a copy of a DRM-encumbered file and giving it to someone else typically results in their not being able to use it, because the DRM recognises them as someone else. (If it doesn't recognise them at all, they still won't be able to use the file.)

That's the intention, anyway. It's not actually possible to implement DRM so that it works—it can only ever make viewing the content a bit more awkward, for determined copyright-infringers and ordinary consumers alike.

The key point here is that the DRM—and thus the key-holder—controls the audience's ability to access the file.

In the situation described by the BBC article, the audience chooses to avoid certain content, based on a set of cultural rules. The “DRM” system allows the audience to filter the content, by taking cultural information about the audience and applying those rules.

There is no key (that the article mentions, anyway); no-one is prevented from accessing any content—it's just made easier to avoid content that's inappropriate for that particular person.

This system sounds rather more like a simple set of filters that work on metadata associated with each bit of content. That's a lot more like a porn-&-swearing blocker than DRM. It's very similar to Flickr's search engine.

Indeed, it's very similar to any search engine, except the criteria are “appropriate for this age, that gender and this community” instead of the more typical “must contain the words foo, bar and baz”.

So this is, as the article describes, an example of applying search logic and technology (that itself originates from European-influenced cultures) to solve a cultural problem that many from European-influenced cultures would find surprising.

It has nothing, however, to do with DRM (which is an example of unfeasibly clinging to a business model that's been made obsolete and unworkable by technological improvements), as the article erroneously suggests.