DRM ? … No thank you

Ever since it became possible to store media in digital formats, there as been a ongoing war between publishers and pirates. The vicious circle of buying , cracking and copying has been giving sleepless nights for the biggest multimedia houses across the world. Napster, Yahoo iTunes and even Hollywood have tried selling protected media in in every possible format. They said DVD will hold, they said wma is secure. They went into shell for 5 year and came out with HD DVD and Blu-Ray, but the cracking brigade took one snoop and took them both out in one go., by a simple RAM dump and a HEX edttor.

The only thing that this copy protection did was force legitimate users to buy pirated cd of their favorite songs and artists, because of copy restrictions or incompatibility which were put in the name of protecting content. If Akai did not have a deal with Sony (which are competitors in the same country) you are out of luck with a Akai player, you either have to wait for Akai to start creating cd’s or buy sony artist. So next time you are choosing your favorite artist , make sure it has a big publisher name on its cd’s.

The first march of the cracking Brigade

The two most popular online DRM schemes are Microsoft’s Play for sure and Apples Fairplay. Infact Apples Fairplay is so huge its ranked fourth among all music dealers in the world courtesy itunes and ipod.

Meanwhile other services like Napster (after it was shutdown and restarted by MS for distributing pirated music) and Musicload distribute media with Microsoft DRM platform.


This format was introduced by Apple in 2003. Mr. Smart Steve Jobs knew it was not a good idea to restict users , Apples DRM allowed free copying your personal music collection to unprotected audio cd’s, which can be played anywhere. The digital audio files were however restricted to the computers you use them on and the number of computers. Although FairPlay was pretty fair to users, hackers set out to open the format further. A Norwegian software engineer called Jon Lech Johanssen wrote a program called QTFairUse in Nov 03 which removed the drm part from the audio file and converted it fully unprotected audio file. Apple tried to fightback and released another version of fairplay in 2006 but another group of hackers ripped it apart in a matter of days after release. This time they did not edit and audio file, instead they simple captured the audio when it was streaming from your soundcard. Apple decided to create DRM hardware and we have the new generations Ipod and Iphones with DRM chips in them, which created more intelligent hackers and the story still goes on. Steve Jobs in his recent blog Thoughts ON music said, he was not the one that proposed DRM. The media companies have forced him to use DRM if he wants to sell music online and he would love music to be free of DRM. Smart did I say ? Steve did actually walk the walk after his talk. iTunes now has a new (and seperate )version called iTtunes Plus , that sells drm unprotected music from EMI. Steve says he is trying to convince other companies to follow suit. The problem is these multi billion dollar music companies are not technical, they just dont want even a smallest drop in their cash counters.


Microsoft released its `PlayForSure`DRM platform in 1999 and by the time it got popular to be used by sites, it was cracked by a hacked called Viodenti. The tool called FairUse4WM plays a part of the protected content and then tries to sniff the key, thus enabling complete decryption of the audio file.. Once the decrytion is complete, the DRM information in the file can be ripped. You could download the song for $10 from Napster rip it and remove the 30 day distributing restriction. MS dragged Viodenti into court and inspite of all the lawyers MS hired, Viodenti was proved was innocent, saying he only used the tools MS provided for development. MS was quick to release Windows Media 11 which has ridiculous number of layers for protection. Customers however never felt the need to upgrade and mp3 and wma 10 were suffice for their needs, and didnt care if it was drm protected or cracked.

Sony’s Adventure

When it comes to distributing audio CD’s, nothing comes close to Sony. Sony has the media rights to almost every artist out there. Sony tried its hand at DRM in a very funny way. They produced intentional errors in their CD’s to confuse software based players, while their hardware played them fine. Recently the media giant had its fingers snapped with its ill fated plan to hide rootkit enabled XCP software into its audio CDs. The rootkit application would install itself into computers with administrator rights and stopped playback of any of its audio on computers. They even went to the extent of disabling CD writes on the system to disable copying their cd’s. Some hackers found a vulnerability in their rootkit! and used the ports to hack the systems. Users complained and sued sony, after a long leagal battle, sony ended up paying $7,50,000 as penalty to state additional it had to pay $175 to each buyer which were in lacks


The best example of content protection overkill was exhibited by the release of HD-DVD and BluRay discs. When companies found they cannot fight alone, they decided to team up. One group was headed by MS(HD-DVD) and the second by Sony(BluRay). Enormous amount of money was spent to make the formats as secure as possible, even to pushing the release of BluRay to 8 months. The Encryption was at various levels, there was encryption on the dsk, on the data stream that passes through the computer and even between the path when it passes to the monitor. There is an encyption mthod called AACS that protected the film itself and another called HDCP that secures the data path between the hardware components.

Al this encoding required specialized hardware to actually play the content PCs needed HDCP enabled graphics cards, powerful processors with DRM technology embedded and compatible cable and monitor! those who didnt want to shell out the extra cash and upgrade were left in the cold like me, no new music for them. By the time everything fell into place and HD DVDs came into the market AACS was cracked. The hardware and software encoding caboodle seemed pretty impressive, and virtually unshakable with 128 bit AES encryption protecting AACS. There was a key assigned to the player as well as the disk. The combination of these two generated a new key called the VUK (Volume Unique Key) , similar to what SSH protocol has used for years. Its known to be uncrackable.

Hackers simply had to find out the VUK for every CD. What the DRM manufactures forgot was a computer has to store everything into computers memory, and the hackers had enough time and knowledge to dump the memory and scan every bit for the key. Soon tools were available which would detect the DVD in the drive , connect to the internet and download the correct VUK key from their database(which was spread all over the world) and insert itself into the computers memory, fooling the players. Popular media players like Windows media player and powerDVD quickly modified their code to dump random content to computers memory to fool the hackers,slowing down machines and crashing other apps. However soon it was discovered that the VUK key is not the random key that everybody thought it was, it was simply the date and time of the DVD creation encoded in a simple encryption. Hackers all over the world were laughing, how stupid they were to expect the media giants could create something worthwhile.

Now every few days every media company releases a new key, which is updated to the media player companies and they update their software. So if you are not connected to the internet, you will be missing all the latest movies and audio. The war goes on. The future is bleak for DRM and pain for the users. No one can complain, because the monopoly. The GNU foundation warned us about this 30 years ago, they said no to DRM and patents. Open Source have adopted free (as in freedom) formats like ogg for video and audio which apparently beats all other digital audio format, because they had more time to work on the compression and quality while others were busy restricting users. Security can NEVER be implemented by adding more layers and restricting users. Apple and EMI have apparently started selling DRM free music for a sightly higher rates than the usual iTunes rates. Dave Goldberg, head of Yahoo music has spoken agaist DRM. Where this all leads ? we just have to wait and see.

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