A paper written by four Microsoft engineers, based on a circulated email dating back to the 90's, predicted that DRM will never work to give the kind of protection Hollywood and the music industry craved, but saying so almost got them fired.
The purpose of the paper, other than to point out what seemed obvious to the authors, was originally intended to calm the nerve of the wider PC community, who were up in arms over Microsoft's attempt to "secure" the platform via the Redmond company's "Trusted Computing" project, or more widely known as Palladium. Biddle had been working on the project, and it took him by surprise just how controversial it all became.
The whole thing was embroiled in a game of political football at the time, when open source advocates feared Microsoft could use the platform to exert full control over the OS, with others worried that it could usher in a new era of hardware based DRM that would reduce what users could do with their content.
Never mind that some of the things critics warned about were impossible, said Biddle, but the notion that this was something dangerous and overreaching was hard to dispel, especially the fears over DRM. Which is why Biddle took the initiative to publish a paper on why DRM, even on a trusted computing platform, would never stop piracy.
The reason why DRM would never work is due to the "Darknet", including BitTorrent networks, Usenet, or even local based copying and file swapping. It is this darknet that makes DRM virtually useless, the paper claimed, as all it took was one smart person to unlock the DRM, and for that unlocked version to reach the Darknet, and it was all over in terms of protecting content. And any escalation in the effectiveness of DRM, would escalate the efforts to disassemble it, leading to a technological arms race that cannot be won. And while content providers and law enforcement would attack the most visible and centralised parts of the Darknet, a prediction proven correct with the attack on BitTorrent users and websites like Megaupload, all this would eventually lead to would be the decentralisation of the Darknet.
Biddle thought that his paper, by pointing out that DRM wouldn't work, would calm nerves and allow the tech community to consider the benefits of a trusted platform. But instead of getting the reaction he wanted, the reaction mostly came from the other side, with content providers furious at the implications, and Microsoft equally anger at pointing out facts that could hurt the chances of licensing the secure technology to content providers.
"I almost got fired over the paper. It was extremely controversial," Biddle told Ars Technica.
But in the end, Biddle was proven right. DRM, while still existing, hasn't worked at all in stopping piracy. The decentralisation of the Darknet continues apace, while big content and law enforcement continues to fight the war on piracy with little success.
The only real success stories where DRM has managed to stay intact, or being hacked but not being widely abused, is on service that are largely welcomed by consumers, such as Netflix or Steam. Others have had more success by being on proprietary, locked systems, which are much easier to protect than a versatile PC.
But piracy still exists because some of these services are still less convenient than their pirated equivalents, something that Biddle says will continue to be a big issue in the fight against piracy. "I pay for premium cable. It's easier to use BitTorrent to watch Game of Thrones," says Biddle.