Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Watermarking: Threat to Privacy?

Recently, a mini-firestorm has erupted over the possibility that the recording industry will add watermarks to music files (e.g., articles here, here, and here). The idea behind the watermarks is that they will allow copyright holders to see where files on peer to peer networks came from and file lawsuits accordingly. Whether such tracking would actually allow the RIAA to file suits without being embarassed (e.g., as described in this article, which eventually led to a charge of malicious prosecution) is an open question. However, what I would like to address is not whether the watermarks will help in prosecution of copyright infringers, but what they will do for individual privacy. In a wired.com article on the subject, Evan Hill, CTO of Activated Content, a company that provides watermarking solutions to Universal, Sony/BMG and other labels is quoted as calling watermarks which uniquely identify each file purchased by each user a "privacy nightmare." While there are certainly concerns about watermarking, I don't think those concerns are really that significant. The reason for this is that problems with watermarking are really only a symptom of a larger issue: users being forced to sacrifice their privacy in order to participate in the modern economy. I've blogged previously (see post here) about the threat posed to privacy by the routine enforcement of clickwrap licenses where service providers can basically dictate terms because users either don't or can't understand what they're agreeing to. Similarly, in the case of music distribution, service providers (i.e., record companies) can basically dictate terms to users, because people won't bother to read the licenses provided with the songs and, even if they did, they wouldn't have any choice about accepting them because the record labels have government enforced copyrights (assuming the consumers care about buying licensed copies of the songs, of course). In both cases though, the problem isn't the watermarks (or the clickwraps) it's the economy, and the legal system which allows those tools to be used in ways that strip users of their privacy.


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