What’s wrong with “streaming” DRM?

Judging from comments here, at Techdirt, and at BoingBoing, there seems to be much confusion about why I don’t want DRM on Sita Sings the Blues. The simplest explanation is this: I am making my film available to all under an open license. Allowing a party to take the benefit of that license, but then limit the rights of downstream users is inconsistent and frustrates the original purpose of the open license — to promote and facilitate access and use of the work.

Some people seem to think DRM is irrelevant on “streaming content.” I was one of them, which is why I was initially so indecisive about the Netflix streaming offer. DRM encourages people to think of certain liberties as being impossible, rather than merely taken away. Already many people think that “streaming” means “cannot be saved on my computer,” instead of “optimized for real-time flow”.  People make this false equation entirely because of user-side DRM.

So along with its other problems, DRM is a kind of anti-literacy device for the digital age.  The more hobbled people’s phones and computers and music players get, the harder it is to remember what it was like when those devices served their users rather than the monopolists. The more deeply embedded DRM becomes, the more its restrictions will come to feel like “just the way things are”, rather than an impediment that could conceivably be removed or worked around.

I respectfully submit a typical comment:

Its not a download or purchase , its “Free Streaming” . From my Roku box to my tv why should you or I care if it has drm.

This is a perfect example of the kind of illiteracy mentioned above. “…we’re talking about a stream, which by definition is not saved on your computer”.  This commenter and others have bought the industry’s definition of “stream”, even though there’s nothing inherent in streaming that prevents saving. I can’t blame them; until last week, I didn’t think about what “streaming” meant either.

Here’s another typical comment:

You’re obviously making a symbolic stand here. That’s fine. But please at least be honest about that instead of claiming that Netflix streaming is “breaking” my home electronics. My computer and my Xbox work just fine and my rights have not been violated in any tangible or meaningful way.

If data is sent to your computer, and yet your computer won’t let you save that data, than an important function of your computer has been interfered with.  Who does your computer work for, anyway, you or them? It’s not just a hypothetical breakage, either.  For example, if you wanted to divide the same incoming stream to two different computers in your house, similarly to how a “Y” pipe would do with water, Netflix DRM will prevent that.  Normally, your computer could do that just fine, but not when it’s broken.

If the quibble is with the word “broken,” we can use the less-inflammatory word “disabled,” although people are eager to forget that “disabling” a computer means “breaking it in increments.”


My rejection of DRM is not a condemnation of Netflix (I like Netflix!) nor of those who use this very convenient service. I made this difficult decision as the author of Sita Sings the Blues. The only reason Netflix has DRM on its streams is because of pressure from the “content industry.” Well guess what – I am the content industry too, and I say no to DRM.


Thanks to Karl Fogel for contributing to this article.


Author: Nina Paley

Animator. Director. Artist. Scapegoat.

30 thoughts on “What’s wrong with “streaming” DRM?”

  1. It is very frustrating that DRM wastes so much bandwidth. Is there such a thing as “digital pollution”? Spam already costs us a lot in filtering and maintaining extra bandwidth we wouldn’t otherwise need. But now DRM makes me download content twice if just want to watch it twice.

    Which I often do for films or video that I like a lot.

    It also makes that first viewing excruciating — I don’t _like_ to watch video in 2 min snippets spaced out by 5 min “buffering” intervals. But some video services are designed not to spool the whole video onto your computer — presumably as a means to prevent you from saving it or copying it. But this ruins the viewing experience the first time around, too.

    Even though I did manage to install the non-free Flash plugin in my browser, I use it on YouTube mainly to just spool the videos. They show up as temporary files in my /tmp partition, and I rename those and watch them in VLC at my leisure. Watching through the browser is just too painful. I’ve got better things to do with my time than watch stupid download spinners. If I’m going to watch a video, I want it to just play!

  2. Great clarification. My only quibble is with your suggestion that the “only” reason Netflix uses DRM is because of content industry pressure. That could be true, but I’m not so sure. If, for example, someone created a “Netflix plug-in” that re-purposed Netflix’s streams, then Netflix’s DRM would likely put the plug-in maker in violation of the DMCA’s anti-circumvention provision. If Netflix thought the plug-in was detrimental to its interest, they’d almost certainly use the DMCA as a legal weapon against the plug-in provider. That, I believe, is the core value of DRM for tech and content companies. It has little to do with preventing piracy; it has everything to do with control. As Internet video streams move onto set-top boxes and direct to TVs, we’ll see that more and more. Want a DVR to record DRM’d content? You’ll need someone’s permission to decrypt the stream. If that someone sees you as a competitor, the answer will be no. Even if they don’t, it’ll cost you.

  3. Streaming is one of the most insidious inventions ever to come out of Big Media’s nefariousness. Almost no one realizes that streaming is just a way to limit your bandwidth by allowing both content providers and ISPs to throttle your downloads and control the “channel” in order to recreate the passive television experience on an interactive medium. When the RealPlayer first came out, the innovation was that you were listening to something while it was downloading a copy to your computer – then somebody in Big Media got smart and realized they didn’t have to finish saving the copy when the stream was done playing.

    If somebody ever manages to make “streaming” bittorrents that played while they were downloading copies, that might change the game a bit. It would mean changing things around a little to marshal the pieces of a torrent so that earlier parts of the file have higher priority and download sooner, but it would be a great way to challenge the so called status quo of “streaming”.

  4. You realize how bad DRM is when you try playing a bluray dvd on a computer with a bluray BDROM drive.
    It requires your BDROM drive to be DRM compliant, your graphics card to be compliant, and your monitor to be compliant(Imagine that). Even though I own a legit bluray dvd, a legit BDROM drive and a legit computer+monitor, I still havent been able to play a single movie on my BDROM drive (even after buying a new dell monitor that was supposedly compliant).
    Its stuff like this that makes you pull your hair out. These RIAA/MPAA/Industry people are insane.

  5. How did the public get the idea that “streaming” media to your computer doesn’t allow your computer to keep a copy for later? I think it’s because the proprietary Adobe Flash player allows web site owners to program your computer to play videos without providing any way for you to save them. When Flash got popular as a way to play videos, it handed over control of “saving” those videos to the wrong guys — the provider, not the computer owner.

    The GNU Gnash flash player lets you save incoming video and/or audio streams.

    Unfortunately, YouTube switched to a later version of Flash, which Gnash does not yet implement. Saving YouTube videos to your hard drive worked for a while, and will work again when Gnash catches up again.

    Free software is your friend — and if it ever does something unfriendly, you’re free to change it to serve YOU rather than its corporate masters.

  6. Jim, I don’t think DRM is a net win for providers like Netflix. The bandwidth concerns I mentioned also cost them on the server side. While I wouldn’t put it past them to want more control, I don’t think it would be worth the hassles it would cause, nor the negative feedback from users.

    I think it really has to be compliance with content creators’ licensing that drives the decision. Not allowing a “No DRM” option might be a political decision to avoid giving an advantage to free-licensed content. But I think it’s more likely that Netflix just doesn’t want to deal with the programming complexity of providing more than one streaming mode. My prior experience with them says that they are not very flexible.

    So, for example, their website works very poorly with different browsers, their download service doesn’t work with many operating systems, and their search engine is absolutely abysmal (the worst I’ve ever seen). My best strategy if I want to find a movie whose exact title I don’t already know is to search for it on Amazon, then paste the exact title into the Netflix search box. That _usually_ works, anyway. I don’t know why they didn’t bother with a decent search engine, considering the millions they spent on their “suggestions” engine. I guess they think “push” is more important than “pull” — sounds like a typical “Big Media” attitude.

    Someday, I predict some much more agile company is going to eat their lunch. But I still like the DVD rental service, so I use them for now.

  7. Nina,

    You’ve missed one point – Climate Change. DRM is a way of adding an inefficiency into the system. Inefficiencies use power. Since 50% of the power supplied in the United States is produced by burning coal, every extra amount of power used dumps more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and increased amounts of carbon dioxide increase the greenhouse effect.

    The individual amount of power used is small, however when you add up all of the devices using DRM in North America, the total amount of power used, and therefore fossil fuels consumed is quite large.

    Therefore DRM is ecologically unsound. I’m working on an article that will explain this in further detail, hopefully I’ll have it finished tonight.


  8. A very important question here continues to go unanswered. When I stream to my Xbox or DVD player or even direct to my TV… how is Netflix disabling, breaking or otherwise interfering with my system? Where specifically is the imposition that you are suggesting?

  9. Memyself (if that is your REAL name… oh ho ho) you feel no imposition because you have agreed with Netflix to limit yourself. You could sign a contract with them in your own blood that promises them your firstborn child as well, and as long as you both hold up your ends of the bargain, there’s technically no “imposition” because you’re letting them take your offspring in exchange for “streaming” video. Other people don’t agree with making that bargain, and they’re of course free to choose other options. You’re completely free to limit yourself and the capabilities of your computer and pay whatever price corporations see fit to charge you for a lesser quality, more bandwidth intensive, yet slightly more convenient experience.

    Also, you may have not realized that you are a content consumer, and not a content creator, and Nina’s problem is that she, as a content creator, does not have an option for distribution that fits the way she wants her works to be distributed. It’s not all about you!

  10. i really enjoy sita and i like the overall stance against drm but put me in the group who doesnt care about drm on streaming content. i as a netflix user have no problem with the fact that i cant save a stream and if you could im sure they would want way more then my 8.99 a month.

  11. “If data is sent to your computer, and yet your computer won’t let you save that data, than an important function of your computer has been interfered with.”

    Yes, Netflix’s DRM prevents me from downloading and keeping a copy of every film and TV show in their library. If that’s an example of corporate evil, well, I guess I’m in league with the devil there, because it seems like a fair deal for eight bucks a month. I just don’t have it in me to be that ideologically rigid.

  12. Another interesting case has come up, via Cory over at BoingBoing. EZTakes an online video service that offers free streams of 5,000-plus films with no DRM; users also have the option to purchase the films and download the full DRM-free files (for anywhere from $2 to $10 each). However, with the free streaming option, you are unable to save the streaming file itself.

    Nina says: “If data is sent to your computer, and yet your computer won’t let you save that data, than an important function of your computer has been interfered with. Who does your computer work for, anyway, you or them?”

    So even this DRM-free service is acting in a malevolent, anti-consumer way, because users aren’t able to save the data that’s being sent to their computers. Do I have that right, Nina? Or am I still being illiterate?

  13. Mike Caprio: “Also, you may have not realized that you are a content consumer, and not a content creator,”

    I’m a financially self sustaining artist and have been for 15 years. Thanks for the presumption though.

    Nowhere did you even come close to actually addressing my question. Nina has clearly stated (that at least part) of her problem stems with intrusive DRM that alters a computers ability to operate. When I stream to my Xbox or DVD player or even direct to my TV… how is Netflix disabling, breaking or otherwise interfering with my system? Please be specific.

  14. Memyself: It is preventing you from capturing the stream for later use. You can’t record it for later use the way you can with television. Without the DRM and related restrictions, there would probably be consoles, DVD players, TV sets, or some other such device that would capture the streams for you the same way people use their DVRs. Either that, or you would be free to make one for your own fair use. It may not seem like you’re being limited, but that’s because you’re thinking about the current hardware and software are like. Sure it seems to work fine, but when you compare it to what you could do if the DRM wasn’t there…it sure begins to look broken.

    jeffk: The DRM-free service probably doesn’t have anything there to stop you from capturing the stream and playing it back later. Someone could probably write software to record the stream to the hard drive, but that someone isn’t EXTakes. EXTake is charging for the convenience of saving the stream without finding/writing a program to capture the stream. Netflix’s DRM outlaws such a program.

  15. Thanks for answering David. I do however disagree.

    One: There is no making of a copy under the protection of Fair Use with a rental. And storing a copy for later use again goes against the concept of a rental. DRM is typically considered invasive because it dictates what we can or cannot do with something we have purchased, or because it alters the functionality of an existing device. Which brings me to my second point…

    Two: I don’t believe it is reasonable to argue that Netflix has inherently limiting DRM just because the 3rd party technology used to view Netflix rentals has not been designed to perform a specific function. If that function was there it begin with and later removed… Okay. But to suggest that Netflix DRM (that does not appear to be present) is prohibiting the development of technology makes no sense. As way of example: We don’t know that Netflix DRM is preventing the Xbox from working as a recording device.

    Also: It’s worth mentioning that there are (unofficial) ways to record streaming media through such devices. That even in the official Netflix system the movie remains stored for repeated viewing in your queue indefinitely and can be accessed from multiple devices at any given time.

    Anyway, I do appreciate your response. Your reasons aren’t ones I agree with. But they are legitimate reasons and I can certainly understand and respect them, despite my disagreement… If that makes sense.

  16. Memyself: Thank you for keeping an open mind here. I do appreciate polite discussion, which is far too rare these days. I would like to point out a few things which support my argument.
    The netflix DRM affects me personally, and I do not have a Netflix account because of it. The technology Netflix uses is incompatible with Linux systems, and the primary reason for this is the DRM they use. The issue is a *bit* more complicated than that, but it essentially boils down to the DRM. A friend of mine had trouble using his Netflix subscription for streaming because of that. You say it works on your XBox and TV, but it certainly doesn’t work on a Linux box which is otherwise capable of viewing streaming video, even using Silverlight.
    As to your other point, I think you’re slightly missing the point with regards to rental vs streaming. Streaming doesn’t have to be considered like a rental. It’s often treated that way, but it doesn’t have to be. In the case of Netflix, people tend to see it as a rental because Netflix rents physical discs as their primary service. The same streaming video on Youtube isn’t thought of as a rental, and many people are quite happy to save the video to their hard disk.

  17. No problem in regards to the polite discussion. I agree. It is far too rare.

    You’re absolutely correct in how the DRM affects you and how it does not work with Linux. If you’re using a computer and Silverlight, you’re dealing with DRM. No argument there. I just feel that as a consumer, I get was seems to effectively be DRM free service through my Xbox and/or DVD player.

    As a consumer, there is an implicit understanding when I subscribe to Netflix that I am subscribing to a service (with specific upfront limitations) as opposed to purchasing a product. You’re right that streaming does not have to be considered like a rental. The concept of streaming as a rental is certainly an artificial one. But that does not make the artificial rental system bad, just as a non-artificial rental system is not a bad one. This isn’t DRM. This is simply the style of service that Netflix offers.

    It’s akin to paying a monthly fee for cable without a DVR. The cable company isn’t restricting my rights by not granting me a DVR. They’re under no inherent obligation to offer a DVR with their service.

    In short: Not offering a full set of options is not the same as restricting options.

    Now… when I purchase a video through through Xbox live, that’s another matter. That is unquestionably an issue where I have made a purchase, and DRM limits the use of the item I was sold.

  18. I’m still slightly on-the-fence on this. I hate DRM and do object to how Netflix’s DRM restricts even some reasonable uses in otherwise as-intended manners (such as playback on Linux and certain other open platforms).

    Here’s my holdback: shouldn’t Netflix be able to (somehow) offer a streaming service for a low monthly fee for users who feel like paying it, and studios who feel like participating, where the implied purpose is that users get a single viewing and/or fixed-time-limit viewing window, and in which it is reasonably assumed that users won’t simply make themselves a permanent copy? I don’t mean this as a defense of DRM, but what other option may they have? I am hoping there may be some option, but I haven’t thought of one. I think studios either wouldn’t participate, or they’d charge much more, if the service were “get unlimited perfect digital copies of whatever movies you want”, instead of “limited streaming views”. I mean, would the cable company be able to only charge $3 or $4 for “on-demand” movies if people were actually being sold permanent copies?

    Don’t get me wrong, here — i think free culture is totally the way to go. My constant analogy is that if I were never able to “illegally” download music (i refer to it as getting free samples), my LEGAL, PHYSICAL CD collection would be several hundred CDs smaller. Similarly, I own 3 physical copies of Sita (both of the QC versions, plus the one available on Amazon… not counting the burned copies of the DVD version i made myself haha). HOWEVER (back to my point) the question here, unfortunately, is what would work for Netflix as a business model – one which would actually be accepted by movie studios. IS there an alternative to DRM ‘locking’ which would suit the desires of any mainstream movie studio?

    (BTW… the “digital copy” that comes with some DVDs now, even though i like the concept, really irritates me – the DRM used, in general, requires the use of crappy Windows Media Player or crappy iTunes/Quicktime, as well as digital unlocking / etc. I mean, i know they don’t want these digital copies so easily copyable, but do they really think they’re stopping anyone from getting an open digital copy if they wanted one? or just ripping the DVD? in this case I think they should just use an open format and bite the bullet. not Netflix or Streaming related though, sorry ;-))

  19. Just wanted to say I appricate the site. You have really put a lot of energy into your article and it is just wonderfull!

  20. anything streamed can be captured. This is patently NOT about stopping piracy but about criminalising the average users’ access to content without REPEATED paid-for authentication. I don’t know about you, but I resent the idea that people who do not create content profit by making me & you criminals, IF we should happen to make a fair use copy for personal use. No one is seriously considering distributing divix or telecine rips for profit.

    Sony v. Universal City Studios ruled not-for-profit copies are fair use, why can’t we just abide by that?

  21. Okay, I’m probably going to sound “heretical” here, but so be it!

    1. Passing up the Neflix thing because of DRM is, frankly, senseless. Why? Isn’t “Sita” *already* available — and freely downloadable — from Internet archive, etc.?
    Sorry to shock the “puritans” out there, who honestly believe that the ability to (easily) capture any/all datafeeds should be *handed* to them on a silver-platter, but…no reason to do so.

    All you would have had to do, was add some sort of notification at the end of the Netflix version of “Sita”, telling folks where they could go to download a (gratis) copy — or buy the limited edition physical copies, if they’re still available. Being ideologically “pure” — hell, I’ll say it — puritanical — just cheated a lot of Netflix users — who aren’t the most tech-savvy bunch of folks, in the *first* place — out of even knowing about “Sita”, Nina Paley, the whole “Free culture” thing, why copyright is out of hand, etc. etc.

    Do you categorically refuse to do TV/radio interviews because the hardware — TV sets/Radios — *sometimes* doesn’t include an explicit “save” as function (record?)

    Have fun arguing your inane sectarian quibbles. Just keep in mind that the notion of “free licenses” is an oxymoron — either it’s free, or you’ve imposed conditions on “permitted” uses. To the extent that you *have* imposed *any* conditions whatsoever, you have also excepted the underlying premise of the most “maximalist” of maximalists — namely, the “rights-holder” as god-like arbiter of what gets “permitted” by users down-stream.

    If you think the way I’ve worded this was “confrontational”, then you’re just looking for excuses not to actually think about what I said.

  22. Nina, I’d still really like to know your opinion on where the DRM is when Netflix streams to devices like DVD players and the Xbox. You said that: “At best DRM reduces the functionality of computers; at worst it invades privacy and adds surveillance and malware.”

    I’m not seeing any of that in these instances.

  23. Memyself – the inherent function of DRM is to track your transgressions against the corporate masters. Some DRM actually implements destructive capabilities, rendering hardware unusable. At the very least, the DRM serves to record “unauthorized” uses of software and media (whether they truly are unauthorized or not – sometimes just reinstalling something can count as a “use”), and much of the time it reports these incidents back to the originating servers. Therein lies the invasion of privacy, and the adding of surveillance and malware.

    Unless, again, you feel that since one agrees to having one’s privacy invaded, there is no wrongdoing happening. As an analogy, I would submit that having a 24/7 camera in one’s living room that tracked whether or not one was recording a TV program on a VCR would destroy any privacy one has even if one welcomed it.

  24. Mike, nowhere does your answer address the issue of DRM on these specific devices. Nothing about your answer is relevant to my question. At all. Again.

    Anyway, I know what DRM is. I’m not seeing evidence of said DRM in the aforementioned specific scenarios. I’m guessing that you are not either.

    Regardless, Nina is the one making public statements about her feelings behind Netflix and DRM on their streaming service. The question was directed to her specifically.

  25. Nina, I’d still really like to know your opinion on where the DRM is when Netflix streams to devices like DVD players and the Xbox. You said that: “At best DRM reduces the functionality of computers; at worst it invades privacy and adds surveillance and malware.”

    I’m not seeing any of that in these instances.

  26. I’m sorry, but the arguments against DRM on streamed materials continue make absolutely no sense. This post tries to sidestep the original discussion, on the merits, and to reframe the issue into one where I’ve been somehow been brainwashed by “the industry” into relinquishing rights I don’t realize are being taken from me. Not true. Not true in the slightest.

    Example: I wanted (and needed) a large tent to set up in my back yard for my daughter’s birthday party. I neither wanted to purchase a large tent, nor do I have space to store a large tent. As such, I called a tent rental company. For a relatively tiny fee, I got a tent for the one day I needed it. Problem solved. The market worked. But guess what? The rental company retained ownership of the tent. I was not allowed to sub-let the tent. Should I have considered those conditions oppressive?

    The point being, I LIKE paying a very small fee to be able to watch certain things, and I LIKE not having to store them on my computer. Sometimes, for some media, I affirmatively WANT that. If I want to purchase a DVD for my home library, that’s another thing entirely, and I’d like that DVD to be DRM free. But with respect to movie rentals, I LIKE the temporariness of that arrangement, and the correspondingly minimal consideration that comes out of my pocket. Moreover, in the case of Netflix streaming, DRM is doing absolutely nothing harmful to my computer, and it’s inflammatory to suggest that it is.

    Maybe the problem here is that Sita isn’t the best example, because not only is it worth purchasing outright, it’s pre-loaded with so much copyright controversy. Consider the issue from the perspective of garden-variety streaming. I remember watching thirtysomething as a college student. I’d never spend the money to purchase the DVDs of that show, nor would I ever want to store and archive them on my own machines–yet I’m nostalgic enough to want to watch a couple of memorable episodes. Streaming on Netflix is pretty cool for that. That’s all I want. And that’s all I expect. So how, again, am I being taken advantage of? When I’m done with the tent, I WANT it loaded back up on the owner’s truck and taken away quickly when I’m done. That’s part of the bargain.

    Even your local free lending library expects you to bring the media back within a reasonable time, and not to simply pass it around amongst your friends.

    I believe you have adopted an extremely tenuous argument that makes you feel better about the decision you made. More power to you. None of this makes me any less a huge fan of you and your work. But you and “I am never wrong” Doctorow, et al., are the ones who hung the issues out there for public comment. You yourself asked for input on Facebook, for cryin’ out loud. Having thus opened the door to other opinions, please have the courtesy not to condescend to those of us who happen to disagree with you, and not to insult us as suffering from technological, legal, or some other sort of “illiteracy.” I’m not aware that you have training in either engineering or in the law. Perhaps you’ve been fighting these battles for so long that it has simply not occurred to you that you, too, might occasionally be wrong.

  27. Tent = rivalrous good
    Physical Book = rivalrous good
    Information/culture/streaming 0’s and 1’s = non-rivalrous good

    please have the courtesy not to condescend to those of us who happen to disagree with you, and not to insult us as suffering from technological, legal, or some other sort of “illiteracy.”

    For some reason you are unable to distinguish between rivalrous and non-rivalrous goods. Maybe it’s not illiteracy. I don’t know what it is. Good luck.

  28. Nina, I’d STILL really like to know your opinion on where the DRM is when Netflix streams to devices like DVD players and the Xbox. You said that: “At best DRM reduces the functionality of computers; at worst it invades privacy and adds surveillance and malware.”

    But this does not seem to actually be true.

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