Good DRM!

Good Digital Rights Management (DRM) does what you intuitively expect it to do. You license some music for $0.99 and you expect to listen to it forever on as many devices as possible. You expect (probably) to be able to share the music with your family.

You would like to be able to share the music with friends. Maybe they can "listen once" or maybe they get a reduced bit-rate version of your music. But it's important that a limited amount of sharing be encouraged otherwise the ever-so-important word-of-mouth about a great song can't happen. In the old days, AM radio provided this shared experience. Then FM and cassette (mix) tapes. Since the quality was always degraded from the original, people were still motivated to buy the original music on LP or CD. (To be fair, cassette copying freaked out the record companies too.)

Now that MP3 or other compression methods are close enough to CD quality, music can spread with no degradation and there is no reason (other than good manners) to purchase music when you can get it for free.

iTunes has shown that people will pay for electronically distributed music. iTunes, however, is a ticking time-bomb, because someday those licenses will stop working, as people upgrade their computers or reformat their hard drives.

Smart people burn everything to CD - nearly every service supports that - so they have a backup copy that isn't tied to a server. It's a pain to have to go to that extra effort, but it beats losing all of your music someday. You can re-rip it as MP3. There is a slight quality degradation from recompressing (which you may not be able to hear) but it's certainly better that than losing all your music!


Bad DRM!

Here's what's wrong with DRM in a nut shell.

There are two parts to the process - the client side - your computer or portable player - and the server side - where important information is stored about your license.

The client side - the stuff on your local computer pretty much works until you reformat your hard drive or buy a new computer. Frequently your license doesn't move over. That's super irritating.

That will be easily fixed in the future when you get some kind of smartcard USB adaptor thing that you can plug into your machine once a month to certify that you are you. Simple.

(Writing to a device like a Minidisc or iPod works well as long as your PC license is up-to-date because you can only write to those devices - not read from them. Making them "write-only" solves A LOT of problems. Of course, Sony, since they own a big record label, had to go a step further and [try to] make it so you can only write to your Minidisc three times, which is really irritating, and involves a local database on your PC that can also get wiped out pretty easily.)

The other part of the process is the server side - this is where things can get really messed up and where you have virtually no control over the process. For instance, if your license grants you the ability to download to three computers, that information has to be stored on a central server.

If you reformat your hard drive you should reasonably expect that you should be able to re-download your music onto that computer. The server decides if this is allowed or not.

With some DRM you can take your licenses off the one computer and move them to another - but this is not universally true. Also, consider that if your hard drive craps out, and you don't have time to back up your licenses, then there's nothing you can do about it except call customer service and hope for the best.

The Microsoft DRM license backup procedure is very strange and not universally implemented (because it needs to be authorized for each and every song).

And the Apple system for iTunes, FairPlay, which is pretty good, in that it is a closed solution that Apple controls, still has problems, because if you reformat your hard drive without decertifying your machine, you have used up access to one machine forever, unless you can beg another machine authorization from iTunes customer service.

Again, once we have something like the little smartcard USB adaptor goody, we can assign your music licenses using that, rather than your non-portable harddrive.

Your music is assigned to YOU as represented by your USB dongle and not to your computer, which is not YOU. This actually could be implemented now with a floppy disk or a writable CD - the main thing is that there is a unique identifier that is you and that ties you to your licensed music. You can make backups of it. You could give it to a friend, but since it checks in with the server every month of two, abuse could be spotted, and you could be politely asked to stop sharing your identifier.

Now, it is quite possible to screw up the server side if your database isn't 100% accurate, as Buy.com appears to have done. I bought some tunes from them and I am quite sure I didn't download them to three computers. When I went to reauthorize some music (after formatting my hard drive!) I got some weird error from their server. It didn't say, "You've used up your licenses." No, it said,

https://secure.buy.com/licenser/licenseInfo.aspx?sku=200680895&failed=true&errorNumber=-2147024809 . I converted -2147024809 into hexadecimal (FFFFFFFF80070057) and searched the web to find out what the error means. It turns out it doesn't mean anything except "bad parameter" - a sort of generic COM error. Useless.

After four email messages to them, they finally reset my licenses, but not until they had accused me of being a criminal and using the music for commercial purposes. Sigh.

Now, buy.com says quite clearly in their online help that you can check to see, for each piece of music, how many times you are allowed to download it, and how many times you can burn it to CD, and so on. This is because each piece of music has its own rules. Well, none of that information shows up now on their web site. My hypothesis is that they went and renegotiated their deal with the record companies and the old rules got thrown out, thus invalidating their database. But who knows - I just know that the "user experience" of using buy.com wasn't so good.

Since I am working on DRM and also just out of curiousity, I am trying a lot of different services.

I have tried the following on-line music services:

  • Real Harmony (good timing - all songs 1/2 price for now);
  • Real Rhapsody (via Comcast);
  • buy.com;
  • iTunes;
  • MusicMatch;
  • AOL Music Net;
  • Sony Connect (works like iTunes except for Minidisc); and
  • Wal-Mart (I got a free song from so I guess maybe that doesn't really count).

I'm trying as many services as possible - at $.49 to $.99 a song, it's pretty cheap research into the "user experience." I read about http://www.allofmp3.com which is a site in Russia where music is half price - and they are the only site with the Beatles! I'll check them out soon, if I can talk myself into giving my credit card number to some people in Russia.

Microsoft is launching a new site this fall on MSN that includes a really cool rental model and I bet their servers will work. A "rental service", like Rhapsody provides, where you get access to 700,000 for $10.00 a month, is really good, and works just like you would expect. I like Real Rhapsody a lot - what a great service. (The non-rental version of the Microsoft music store is launching this week.)

The DRM system I am working on (which currently uses Microsoft technology but we'll see if that's how it ends up) has to address the "user experience" issues. My client and I have good ideas about fixing that without having to wait for a smartcard to track everything.

I personally like the potential of DRM even though the current implementations have inherent problems. Physical distribution of music is going away - fast! So the sooner we figure this DRM stuff out and make it truly user-friendly the better. Nobody wants to feel ripped off.


I got an email from Ron Gilbert!

Here's what he said:




Did you notice that cool image processing they've been doing during Olympic diving?

This is it.

I've watched almost all of the Olympic coverage on NBC. One day there was eight hours straight of it.

But I must admit I've seen a lot of it at 60x speed (thanks to TiVo). Does that still count as watching?


My site used to be called atgp.com, which was nice and short and sweet. It turns out that a "TGP" is a "Thumbnail Generated Page" and typing in atgp into Google came up with all kinds of porn links, because the porn sites use "TGP" programs to make series of pictures for all of us to browse. (Too bad I didn't call it atgc.com - Above the Garage Corporation - because atgc are the four letters that make up DNA - that would have been worth something.)

So I changed the name to http://www.above-the-garage.com . It's more to type but in the long run it's a better name.

Wow. All of my old pages at atgp.com are archived in a site called (what else) the Internet Archive. It's here: http://www.archive.org . Type "atgp.com" into the WayBackMachine and not only are all the old pages there, but a complete update history!


Now that I have changed from atgp.com to above-the-garage.com the only odd bits that come up when searching Google for Above the Garage are sites about where and how Kurt Cobain killed himself.

Double creepy.


Grumpy Gamer

Grumpy Gamer

Half of the reason for having a blog is to point at other people's blogs.

Grumpy Gamer is a blog by Ron Gilbert of Monkey Island (LucasArts), Pajama Sam (Humongous), and Total Annihilation (Cavedog) fame.

I worked at Cavedog for a couple of years. I was in the "Boneyards" group which was tasked with providing online support (simple things like match-making and strange things such as "metagames") for other Humongous and Cavedog games.

Anyway, Ron is not the most talkative person in the world. When Humongous/Cavedog moved into a new building, I was stuck out in the north 40, somewhat close to Ron's office. Ron apparently enjoyed being pretty far away from the other 400 people in the building. So, I would be walking down the hall and sometimes Ron would be walking the other way, and he would just totally ignore me.

I took this on as a challenge. So whenever we would pass (maybe once or twice a week), I would say, "hey," as I walked by. It took about a month, but Ron finally said, "hey," back to me. Victory! Contact had been made!

Then I forgot about the whole thing and just focused on work. I'm sure Ron forgot about it too.

Low Light

The recent movie "Collateral" withTom Cruise and Jamie Foxx was shot on High Definition digital cameras. Nobody made a big deal about HD as part of the PR push. What you heard instead was "LA never looked this good" and "Michael Mann [the director] knows how to show off LA at night" and things like that.

The fact is that shooting on HD allowed the filmmakers to capture LA at night in a way that has never been done before. HD cameras work way better than film cameras in low light situations.

(See this cool trailer.)

In fact, your friendly home digital camera works way better in low light situations than a film camera. Try going out at twilight and shooting a picture (not too dark - it needs some light). What appears as twilight to you typically appears as the middle of the day in your photo.

Here is an awesome (IMHO) picture I took at night in Japan with an inexpensive ($190.00) digital camera:

Japan At Night (C) Stephen Clarke-Willson

And here's a great picture in Manhattan Beach, CA, at twilight:

Manhattan Beach at Twilight (C) Stephen Clarke-Willson

Believe it or not, I was once talking with Richard Edlund, visual effects supervisor for the first three Star Wars movies, at Boss Film, which he owned and operated in Santa Monica. Mr. Edlund had won at least four Academy Awards for Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and a technical award for this amazing compositing camera he invented. I can't believe I said this: "Analog sucks." This would have been in 1994 when they were working on Species, which was done digitally. Richard had just shown me these amazing analog effects cameras he had invented for shooting all the process photography in Star Wars. The camera (which used an old 8-bit Nintendo controller!) could move 30,000th of an inch in order to adjust for the wavelength of light as they corrected for the kinds of halos and masking you might get in Matte photography and analog composite shots. And I rather rudely said, "Analog sucks."

His response, and this is the guy who was the best in the world at process photography, was, "Analog is a difficult beast and you really have to fight with it to get good results." I felt lucky he didn't kick me out of his studio.

The thing is, analog film is still better for some things. For one thing, high-speed photography - you can't crank a digital camera up to 100 fps (yet). And what's cool now is that instead of fighting over which is better or worse, all the DPs (Directors of Photography) in the world are figuring out when it is best to use one or the other.

But it's great that a movie that couldn't have been made before because film emulsion couldn't capture it has been released as a big feature film with little fanfare about the technology behind it.

I highly recommend Collateral, especially if you live or have been to LA, and also the excellent Heat, directed by Michael Mann.



I was going to buy a Treo 600 but apparently shipments compatible with Cingular were delayed due to manufacturing problems.

While surfing I came across a post on a BBS where it was suggested that I forget about the Treo 600, which integrates phone, keyboard, mp3 player, camera, and browser, and instead get two things: a Bluetooth phone and a PDA enabled with Bluetooth. That way, I could take my nice small phone with me if I wanted or the larger PDA and the phone with me, if I wanted to surf the web or whatever.

So I went with this approach and thus became introduced to the wonderful world of Bluetooth.

Now it seems I have Bluetooth coming out my ears (literally - I have a Bluetooth headset).

First, the phone - a Sony Ericsson T616 - a very popular phone. It also had the advantage of being tri-band GSM, so it would work in France. It never did, but that's a different story.

The T616 also sports an itty-bitty camera, and enough memory to hold my contact list as well, so it has all my phone numbers without having to resort to the PDA.

The PDA I went with was the Sony Clie NZ-90. It obviously has Bluetooth. After upgrading it a bit, it also has Wi-Fi (802.11b), plus a Memory Stick slot for MP3 files. And it has a 2 megapixel camera which can also write to the Memory Stick. And a huge screen - 320 x 480. Here's a review.

It's pretty big as a PDA and heavy too - which is why it is great I can leave it behind on short trips and just use the phone.

Of course, I needed to sync my contacts etc. with my PC, so I bought a Linksys USB/Bluetooth adaptor. It works fine with Windows XP.

Then I need another Bluetooth adaptor for my work machine, so I bought another Linksys adaptor.

Then I wanted one of those cool wireless headsets, so I bought the Sony Ericsson HBH-35, which has the great feature of using the same charger as the phone - one less charger necessary when traveling.

So I don't have that many Bluetooth devices, but the number of ways they can interconnect is amazing.

My contacts are shared between the PC, the NZ-90, and the phone. I can dial phone numbers from the NZ-90. I can connect via Wi-Fi from the NZ-90 and surf, if Wi-Fi is available. I can connect via Bluetooth to the phone as a modem, if there is no available Wi-Fi connection. It's fast enough, especially with the Blazer browser. (Netfront is pretty bad.) I had the Blazer browser left over from my old PDA - a Handspring Visor Prism. Too bad the NZ-90 doesn't come with Blazer. What a great browser.

I can drag MIDI files from my PC (for example, ones that I have played on my keyboard, like this one) unto the phone and use them as ring tones. So now I get Maple Leaf Rag as performed by me as my ringtone! (The strange thing about this is that while I am making a connection via Bluetooth, which is pretty high-tech radio stuff, consider the small size of it all, the actual software protocol used to connect is FTP, one of the oldest protocols on the Internet.)

I can drag and/or send pictures between all three devices via Bluetooth.

This is amazing - I can connect my PC to the Bluetooth headset. I use the Linksys Quick Connect and connect to the headset (after pairing it, of course). The headset rings - that's how it shows that someone is trying to use it - it rings! I "answer" the call, and then I am connected to my PC, and the headset is made the default sound card. Bluetooth audio is fairly low-res, but it works! I could use it for audio conferencing over the PC.

The biggest downside is that an hour of phone use with Bluetooth active can use up a lot of battery power. But since I have a car charger that will charge the phone and the headset, plus a spare battery for the NZ-90, I'm generally in fine shape.

Sony has discontinued almost all of their Clie (Palm-combatible) PDAs due to lack of demand. I can understand this - my approach here has been fairly geeky. Overall I'm happy with it. I look forward in a year or two when a smaller, more powerful PDA comes out that will be compatible with everything I have and an easy upgrade.



Here's a cyberscan of my face, done way back in 1993 or 1994:


A bigger version (one megabyte).

There's an article about it here, with pointers to more fun pictures.



Way back in the old days, probably late 1996 or early 1997, I started what had to be one of the first blogs ever - except it wasn't called that. It was just a series of web pages I updated from time-to-time. They are here: http://www.above-the-garage.com/rblts/ [note: seems like now it just loops back to blogger]. When I first started I used an ancient tool called HotDog, since I didn't know any HTML. Then after using HotDog for awhile, I realized there were only about 10 HTML things I needed to know, and I just typed in my files directly. Then MS Word became a decent editor for HTML as part of the big Microsoft Internet push, so I used that.

Now, years later, all this blogging stuff is practically automatic. It's nearly trivial to dash off a thought and post it for the whole world to see. Back in the day, the most popular articles I wrote were about the Rise and Fall of Virgin Interactive. I have removed those files for now, because I want to go back and sanitize them a bit, to protect the names of the innocent and the guilty. It's still a fascinating story of how to trash a big company.

For the past five years I was working at Cavedog and then Amaze Entertainment in the Adrenium and Black Ship studios. Now I am back working from home at Above the Garage Productions. My home page is here: http://www.above-the-garage.com .

My project right now is some Digital Rights Management work. People hate DRM, and for good reasons, but I plan to implement things correctly.

I'll have some comments about DRM in the coming days.