That’s what Fraunhofer is calling their new project. See this fawning Wired article (gotta be a stringer) for the dumbed down version – the site is pretty straightforward.
The basics: Light Weight DRM (LWDRM) itself does not directly impede the manipulation and copying of copyrighted content. Instead, to make certain uses (as determined by copyright holders), users will have to include a certificate, provided by a third party, that both links the file to the user and includes the necessary decryption key. In addition, Fraunhofer intends to implement watermarks, though this seems like a minor part of LWDRM. Regardless, the point is to allow copyright holders to identify the origin of content distributed in an infringing manner. Those users could then be sued for infringement. LWDRM accepts and expects that infringement will still occur on a small scale, alongside perfectly legitimate copying for family and friends. Fraunhofer only expects that LWDRM will help stop large scale infringement, particularly over P2P networks.
Notably, Fraunhofer says that this will encourage people to share only with trustworthy parties – sound a lot like Clay Shirky’s File-Sharing Goes Social (in addition to those saying “share with friends not with strangers”).
Sounds good, at least at the outset, but it’s got problems. Some may be technical – though I’m no expert, I know that at least watermarking is difficult (see summary in this interesting doc). The public key infrastructure part seems plausible and interesting, but everything is evadable (see Darknet paper). I can’t imagine being much harder to evade than your typical music store’s DRM. There are also some privacy issues, though Fraunhofer intends the key signing to be pseudonymous and all done with a “trusted” third party.
I’m also not sure how much it will actually achieve its aim. LWDRM’s tries to stop infringement before the fact by enhancing the after infringement threat of a lawsuit. Just like other DRM, it does nothing to actually stop the spread of the copy once its on P2P; the only difference between this and other DRM is that LWDRM actually lets you spread a functioning copy over P2P. With this in mind, does this add anything to the current threat of lawsuits? Does the possibility of having downstream infringements traced back to you really add to people’s fears? Moreover, it is unclear to what extent LWDRM would make it more likely that one could be successfully sued. Some uses that involve sharing with friends will be perfectly legitimate. If the first user’s sharing is legitimate, but the receiving second user decides to share the file, it doesn’t help that you know where the copy originated – the initial sharing could still be legit. There’s room for some plausible deniability. Even if the first sharing was infringing, that does not necessarily make the the first user responsible for the second person’s infringement, and thus LWDRM won’t necessarily lead to enhanced penalties.