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DRM on JPEGs: Kill It, Kill It With Fire

5331708751_5324e64848_oSomeone has had the bright idea that the internet would benefit from additional DRM.

Earlier this week the JPEG committee, the group that defines and sets the technical standards for the most widely used image format on the web, held the first meeting for its JPEG Privacy and Security group.

This group was launched to consider whether it would be a good idea to completely screw up the JPEG standard by making DRM a core part of the standard.

JPEG has always had a DRM spec (it’s called JPSEC), but it was limited to the professional version of the JPEG format, JPEG 2000, and as a result the average user has never felt its sodden embrace.

But if the DRM is added to the core spec, we’ll all notice. From the EFF:

If you have ever tried scanning or photocopying a banknote, you may have found that your software—such as Adobe Photoshop, or the embedded software in the photocopier—refused to let you do so. That’s because your software is secretly looking for security features such as EURion dots in the documents that you scan, and is hard-coded to refuse to let you make a copy if it finds them, even if your copy would have been for a lawful purpose.

Now imagine if you had the same problem with any image that you found online—that your computer wouldn’t let you make a copy of Gene Wilder when making an image macro, or would stop you from reposting photos from an online catalog to your Pinterest account, or would prevent an artist from using a digital photograph as the basis for a new artwork. That’s essentially what the JPEG Committee is discussing today in Brussels, when considering a proposal to add DRM to the JPEG image format.

To be fair to the JPEG committee, they had the best of intentions. Techdirt reported back in July that the initial proposal was framed in terms of enhancing an individual’s privacy by setting access controls via privacy policies. (You know what they say about good intentions and roadwork, don’t you?)

The JPEG committee investigates solutions to assure privacy and security when sharing photos on social networks, (stock) photography databases, etc. JPEG Privacy & Security will provide new functionality to JPEG encoded images such as ensuring privacy, maintaining data integrity, and protecting intellectual rights, while maintaining backwards and forward compatibility to existing JPEG legacy solutions.

The DRM discussion is only in the very early stages, but I’m betting that the group will move forward and recommend that the DRM spec be added to the image standard that we use everyday.

Whoever set up this discussion was smart; they framed this as a privacy issue.

While Americans may place paramount importance on free speech, Europeans tend to put privacy first. That’s why Europe has a "right to be forgotten", and it’s why Europe’s top court issued the "Safe Harbor" decision last week, striking down the legal compromise that let companies move data from privacy-obsessed Europe to the US (where, as the court ruled, said data could be spied upon by the US gov’t).

Focusing the DRM discussion in terms of privacy means that the Europeans on the committee are half won over to the idea of mucking up the JPEG image format with DRM.

It’s not a slam dunk, by any means. As the EFF made clear in its presentation, DRM causes more problems than it solves. DRM would add another way for websites to break, impinge on fair use rights, and harm archival efforts, and everyone knows this.

But I’m afraid the odds are stacked in favor of DRM.

Or did I miss something?

image by LifeSupercharger

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