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Google DRM and WON Authentication

So, Google have invented their own DRM, apparently. I’m keen to find out more details; Techdirt and are so far the only places I can find in the blogosphere to discuss it in any detail.

One tidbit worth noting from the LA Times coverage:

The Google copy-protection software also imposes a big restriction: The CBS shows, NBA games and other material protected by the software can be watched only on a computer that’s connected to the Internet.

“I think it’s going to be a problem,” said Li, the Forrester analyst, adding that Google executives told her they were trying to fix it.

That’s interesting. In my opinion, given that quote, I’ll bet Google’s DRM is something similar to the copy-protection systems used for many games since about id’s Quake 3 and Valve’s Half-Life; an online “key server” which validates codes, tracks player IDs, and who’s viewing what, “live”, as the video is cued up and played.

Some more info on the Half-Life WON authentication system can be found in this GamaSutra article; subscription required — try viewing this google-cache version with Javascript off if you don’t have a sub. That’s historical now, of course, since that WON system has been replaced by a new auth protocol as part of Valve’s ‘Steam’ system.

The key factor is the network, separating the dangerous, untrustworthy user machine from the trusted key server. Since the online key server can act as a platform for trusted, known-insubvertable code to run, along with the video server, both being under Google’s control, it’s actually possible to build reasonably solid DRM on this model. That’s as opposed to the usual case, where a reasonably determined teenager can break it in a week of school-nights. ;)

Anyway, that’s speculation. It remains to be seen if they’ve come up with something along the lines of WON authentication — and if it’s still easily subvertable or not.

Update: Aristotle Pagaltzis has a pretty good point in the comments:

Watching video, unlike playing a multiplayer game, is not an activity that inherently requires connecting to a server. Playing a multiplayer game, OTOH, inherently is.

So cracking a multiplayer game’s key check is fruitless, because then you can’t play online anymore, which was the whole point of the game in the first place. In contrast, a video player with a cracked key check still fulfills its purpose just fine.

I think he’s right. That’s a key point, demonstrating how WON authentication still can’t help — media playback, as a task, is itself fundamentally crackable.