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What really happened with Google Premium Video — Part one: DRM killed the files

As Daniel pointed out on Tuesday (Another Example of Access Bad, Ownership Good), when Google shut down its premium video service on August 15, it was able to prevent customers who had bought and paid for videos from Google from ever watching those videos again. But there is a bit more to the story — and it has implications for how government information is distributed.

In this, Part One of a two part look at the issues, we examine how Digital Rights Management (DRM) technologies and proprietary software allowed Google to make it impossible for users to watch videos that they had bought from Google even though they had downloaded the video files onto their own computers. In Part Two we examine why this story is important for government information specialists and Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) librarians.

While it wasn’t obvious from the initial news stories about this, Google used DRM and proprietary software to deny access to files users had paid for and downloaded. Although the Government Printing Office (GPO) has not used identical techniques, it has experimented with similar ones and has never explicitly rejected use of techniques that could provide government a way to deny access to information even if users have copies of files on their own computers. More on that below.

Google’s premium video-purchase-and-download service overlapped with with Google’s YouTube-like service, Google Video, which offers streaming video without charge and some free downloads. But in early 2006, Google announced a service as part of Google Video that would allow users to pay to rent or buy certain videos (such as NBA basketball games and TV shows such as CSI) and it is that service that changed this week and those videos that people purchased that they no longer can watch.

YouTube and Google Video use "streaming" video technology so that you watch the stream of video as it comes to you. It is also possible to download videos in some cases. But the Google premium video service allowed users to pay for videos, download them, keep the video files, and watch them without streaming or re-streaming the content. Customers had the files on their own computers and could copy them and put them on different machines as if they really did "own" them. But there was a catch.

Actually, there were three catches. First, users of this service had to download and install the proprietary "Google Player" software. (The software was originally downloadable from http://video.google.com/playerdownload but even the Google cache of that page disappeared this week.) It served a similar function to Windows Media Player or Quicktime or other media players, but it used its own proprietary format (".gvi"). Only the Google Player could play Google Videos.

Second, you could watch the proprietary format using the proprietary player only if you were connected to the internet and authenticated yourself as the purchaser.

Since the Google Player was the only player that could read the files one purchased, users were locked-in to the DRM of authentication-over-the-internet (sometimes called the "phone home" feature). So, even if you paid for a video and "owned" the file you downloaded, you couldn’t watch it unless Google allowed you to do so — every time you watched it. This week Google simply turned off the ability for users to authenticate. Presumably, this is the way the Google rental service operated from the start: after 24 hours, you no longer had permission to view the file you downloaded. It turned out that the "purchase" program was just a temporary service as well.

This is why The Guardian described the situation this way:

Google handed opponents of digital rights management (DRM) a huge weapon this week when it announced that DRM-protected videos bought from its online video store will no longer work, and that customers will not be reimbursed.
  — Kiss goodbye to your DRM-protected Google Video clips, by Charles Arthur The Guardian, August 16 2007

And that brings us to the third catch: the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Although there are hacks, work-arounds, and other technical tricks that allow one to circumvent the Google phone-home DRM, they are against the law. Again, The Guardian saw the implication of this for libraries:

But the fact that thousands of purchased files will cease working will give pause to organisations charged with creating public archives of published information – such as the British Library and, in the US, the Library of Congress. The latter in particular was anyway considering whether any redrafting is needed on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA): the idea of offering a loophole to circumvent DRM on products that no longer work properly was rejected in its last consideration. Google’s decision might lead to a reversal in thinking.

There is more about this story and its implications for FDLP libraries in Part Two.

More information:

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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