Translation Please

Back to School on DRM

9/05/2011 9:32 AM

In the world of professional writing, there exists a pecking order when it comes to assignments. In mainstream newspapers, cub reporters get the fire beat.

In tech writing, it varies. I worked next to a guy in the early ’90s who took on “why are pedestals green?” to avoid the annual fleet-management roundup.Likewise for test equipment, and, since digital, DRM - digital rights management. Why? High volumes of multisyllabic jargon; triply nested acronyms; religious wars about software-based cryptography. All that, and for years, nobody really was using it.

That’s about to change. DirecTV announced its plan to use DRM made by NDS on Aug. 31. MSO technologists readying their Internet-protocol video strategies count the transition from conditional access to DRM as part of what they need to plan, build and provision.

It all feels rather cusp-ish, here on the brink between summer and fall of 2011.

For that reason, here’s a lay of the land, in these calm-before-the-storm DRM days:

DRM is about controlling more than one state. Digital set-tops, in a security sense, are one-trick ponies: On the condition that you’re a subscriber, you get access to the programming. Encryption is applied to protect stuff in transit. DRM, by contrast, wraps protection around the video asset, to serve multiple business cases - not just transit.

For MSOs, it’s about picking a system to protect content transmitted in IP, while figuring out how to deal with assets that get their DRM wrappers elsewhere. Say you’ve bonded a dozen or so DOCSIS channels, planks for a simulcast of your linear and on-demand lineups, in IP. That’s when you pick your DRM. At the same time, content will come inevitably in a format that’s been “DRM’d” elsewhere, earlier in the path.

What you buy are key management services and keep-it-fresh services. Surprise, surprise: DRM is a software thing. Buying it means buying the servers that manage the keys back and forth, to unlock the assets. Or, as one DRM tech friend says, “You buy the thing that runs the filter and flips the bits.”

It’s a pretty crowded vendor community. Surprisingly or not, the two biggies of the conditional access “duopoly” - Cisco Systems and Motorola - aren’t high on the buzz meter that is DRM. It’s super-crowded, though, with at least a half dozen big contenders. Welcome to the open-source world. Speaking of which, one of the questions about what will happen in the looming DRM heyday is what Google will do with its December 2010 acquisition of Widevine. Making its DRM open and free would have a predictable affect on the DRM marketplace.

Revocation’s still a bitch. Ask anyone involved in conditional access what the biggest hurdle was in getting those foundational security technologies deployed. Much like now, the muck of it was in the contracts, not in the actual technology - meaning figuring out who finally agrees to provide indemnification in the event of a security breach.

If history repeats, this is precisely when it goes from “fun” to “everything’s fun - until someone loses an eye!”
Stumped by gibberish? Visit Leslie Ellis at or


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