Adobe Pushes DRM for Flash

February 20th, 2008

Posted by Seth Schoen, EFF

The immense popularity of sites like YouTube has unexpectedly turned Flash Video (FLV) into one of the de facto standards for Internet video. The proliferation of sites using FLV has been a boon for remix culture, as creators made their own versions of posted videos. And thus far there has been no widespread DRM standard for Flash or Flash Video formats; indeed, most sites that use these formats simply serve standalone, unencrypted files via ordinary web servers.

Now Adobe, which controls Flash and Flash Video, is trying to change that with the introduction of DRM restrictions in version 9 of its Flash Player and version 3 of its Flash Media Server software. Instead of an ordinary web download, these programs can use a proprietary, secret Adobe protocol to talk to each other, encrypting the communication and locking out non-Adobe software players and video tools. We imagine that Adobe has no illusions that this will stop copyright infringement -- any more than dozens of other DRM systems have done so -- but the introduction of encryption does give Adobe and its customers a powerful new legal weapon against competitors and ordinary users through the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

Recall that the DMCA sets out a blanket ban on tools that help "circumvent" any DRM system (as well as the act of circumvention itself). When Flash Video files are simply hosted on a web site with no encryption, it's unlikely that tools to download, edit, or remix them are illegal. But when encryption enters the picture, entertainment companies argue that fair use is no excuse; Adobe, or customers using Flash Media Server 3, can try to shut down users who break the encryption without having to prove that the users are doing anything copyright-infringing. Even if users aren't targeted directly, technology developers may be threatened and the technologies the users need driven underground.

Users may also have to upgrade their Flash Player software (and open source alternatives like Gnash, which has been making rapid progress, may be unable to play the encrypted streams at all). Third-party software that can download Flash Video, like the most recent RealPlayer, will also break. But Adobe now has an incentive to push the use of DRM: it's only available to sites that use Flash Media Server 3 software, which starts at over $4,000 (with extra fees depending on the number of simultaneous streams).

Furthermore, the prospect of widespread adoption of DRM restrictions on Flash threatens to squash a growing tradition of expressive fair use of online video -- a practice effectively in its infancy that, left unfettered, would be a dynamic solution to our failing effort to teach media literacy. Before we understand how to read media messages, we must first learn how to speak their language -- and we learn that language by playing with and remixing the efforts of others. DRM, by restricting the remixing of Flash videos, stands to bankrupt a rich store of educational value by foreclosing the ability of students and teachers to "echo others" by remixing videos posted online.

Take the example of "A Vision of Students Today" vs. "(Re)Visions of Students Today". The first "Vision" YouTube video is an artful critique of higher education's failure to come up with new models of instruction that engage the modern student; the second "(Re)Vision" YouTube video is an incisive observation of higher education's crisis in diversity (summarily expressed by the lack of diversity in the original "Vision" video). The original and the remix support each other to instruct with an influence above and beyond the power of either video alone.

Outside the halls of academia, we can see that the ability to openly download and remix video is part of a new ecosystem of amateur entertainment -- watch Drama Prairie Dog and its countless responses:

As we noted above, remixers who find and use tools that break the Flash Video encryption could be sued, even if their transformative creations would otherwise have been fair use.
Finally, there's a classic suite of arguments against DRM that will be as true for online video as they were for music. DRM doesn't move additional product. DRM is grief for honest end-users. And there's no reason to imagine that new DRM systems will stop copyright infringement any more effectively than previous systems.

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