DRM and the Challenge of Serving Users

mitchell

Today at Mozilla we find ourselves at a difficult spot. We face a choice between a feature our users want and the degree to which that feature can be built to embody user control and privacy. Here’s why.

People want to watch video, including movies and TV shows. Browsers must provide the ability to watch video or the browser becomes less and less the tool users need. A number of content owners (in particular film and TV studios) require technical mechanisms to reduce the ways in which people can use that content, such as preventing people from making copies.  This technical mechanism is generally called “DRM” for “digital rights management.”  Browsers must implement DRM in a way that makes the content owners comfortable. Otherwise they won’t allow their content to be viewed through that browser.

The industry is on the cusp of a new mechanism for deploying DRM. (Until now, browsers have enabled DRM indirectly via Adobe’s Flash and Microsoft’s Silverlight products.) The new version of DRM uses the acronyms “EME” and “CDM.” At Mozilla we think this new implementation contains the same deep flaws as the old system. It doesn’t strike the correct balance between protecting individual people and protecting digital content. The content providers require that a key part of the system be closed source, something that goes against Mozilla’s fundamental approach.

We very much want to see a different system. Unfortunately, Mozilla alone cannot change the industry on DRM at this point. In the past Firefox has changed the industry, and we intend to do so again. Today, however, we cannot cause the change we want regarding DRM.  The other major browser vendors — Google, Microsoft and Apple — have already implemented the new system. In addition, the old system will be retired shortly. As a result, the new implementation of DRM will soon become the only way browsers can provide access to DRM-controlled content.

We’ve contemplated not implementing the new iteration of DRM due to its flaws. But video is an important aspect of online life, and a browser that doesn’t enable video would itself be deeply flawed as a consumer product. Firefox users would need to use another browser every time they want to watch a controlled video, and that calls into question the usefulness of Firefox as a product.

Despite our dislike of DRM, we have come to believe Firefox needs to provide a mechanism for people to watch DRM-controlled content.  We will do so in a way that protects the interests of individual users as much as possible, given what the rest of the industry has already put into place.  We have selected Adobe to provide the key functionality. Adobe has been doing this in Flash for some time, and Adobe has been building the necessary relationships with the content owners. We believe that Adobe is uniquely able to bring new value to the setting.

We have designed mechanisms to protect the user as much as possible. We do not view this work as fixing the core problems with DRM.  We do however view this design as a  step forward from DRM implementations that are unchecked in their scope. For example:

  • Each person will be able to decide whether to activate the DRM implementation or to leave it off and not watch DRM-controlled content.
  • We have surrounded the closed-source portion with an open-source wrapper. This allows us to monitor and better understand the scope of activities of the closed-source code.

For additional details please head to my colleague Andreas Gal’s post for a technical description.

We will also continue to work on alternative solutions for DRM.  We deeply, deeply want to move the industry to a different solution where each one of us remains our own authority over our computers and our lives.  We’re engaging on both the content and the technology sides to explore new technologies and welcome everyone who’s interested to work on alternative solutions.

We’ve written an FAQ with more information:

What is Mozilla doing?

We are taking steps to ensure our users can continue watching popular videos like Hollywood movies in Firefox.  Digital Rights Management (DRM) is used by content providers to control the way their videos can be used and distributed, and is currently required by many rights holders before they will allow their videos to be streamed to software like Firefox.  In order to allow this content to be streamed in Firefox, Mozilla will be adding a way to integrate Adobe Access DRM technology for video and audio into Firefox, via a common specification called Encrypted Media Extensions (EME).

Why is Mozilla doing this?

Firefox users have traditionally been able to watch DRM-enabled videos by downloading plug-ins such as Silverlight and Flash, but those solutions will not be available for much longer. Every other major browser vendor has already implemented EME, and as it becomes the norm, we want to avoid the possibility that people will be unable to access key Internet content such as streaming Hollywood movies via Firefox.  We also do not want to create a situation where Firefox users must use other browsers for key Internet activities.

What impact will this have on Firefox users?

It will be easier for Firefox users to play DRM-enabled videos because they will not have to download Flash or Silverlight first. Firefox users will be able to choose whether to activate the new DRM system before it is accessed.

When will this be deployed in Firefox?

The details of the Firefox integration still need to be finalized, and then as with any new browser feature, will be tested for several months in developer builds of Firefox before being deployed to all users.

Which versions of Firefox will it be deployed in?

We plan on deploying it in the Firefox desktop browser for Windows, Mac and Linux operating systems.

Isn’t DRM counter to the open Web principles Mozilla stands for?

DRM requires closed systems to operate as currently required and is designed to remove user control, so Mozilla is taking steps to find alternative solutions to DRM. But Mozilla also believes that until an alternative system is in place, Firefox users should be able to choose whether to interact with DRM in order to watch streaming videos in the browser.

Why did Mozilla select Adobe?

We selected Adobe based on the ability to help design an implementation that attempts to retain elements of user control and transparency while providing a broad set of features (such as support for multiple platforms and video codecs).

Will support for EME also be deployed in Firefox for Android or Firefox OS?

For now we are only deploying this in the desktop Firefox browser.