Getting to Know the Four DRM Camps

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As definitions go, few phrases have more different meanings to more industries than “digital rights management,” or “DRM.”

A very unscientific poll, conducted at various industry gatherings over the last month, may help to illustrate the magnitude of the gap. When asked for a visceral reaction to the term “DRM,” everybody paused. (The pause felt about a second too long for a visceral reaction, but, DRM is complicated. The extra think time was allowed.)

Then came the responses, clumped something like this:

Cable side: “It’s a necessary thing to protect content moving over our networks, to the devices attached to them. It’s nightmarish as a method for cable bypass.” … “Totally confusing.”

Content side: “It’s how we protect our stuff over the link between the Internet, and everything that might be on a home network.” … “Good if it means new distribution channels to sell our content, bad if it means unchecked duplication without compensation.”

Consumer-electronics side: “It’s a curse if it means content owners can control the outputs of our products.”

Computer/information technology (IT) side: “It’s the central nervous system of the home media center PC.” … “Good if it’s ours, bad if it’s not.”

Yes, DRM is the Grand Canyon of consensus gaps.

The good news is, the brain trusts of all four angling industries know that any outcome will deeply rattle their core business.

Because of that, they also know roughly what they want, and what the others want. Sometimes, just knowing what you want is half the marathon.

WHAT’S SCARY TO WHOM

A translation of what’s rattling whose cores: For the content guys, it’s the gadgetry, coupled to broadband pipes. Without locks and keys, their products are extremely vulnerable to theft — or unrealized revenues.

Think, for example, of digital, cable-ready receivers nested inside an assortment of fixed and portable consumer-electronics (CE) gear. Say those gizmos know how to work with a digital VCR, or a DVD burner.

Programs come in, fast and clean, and spray into a device that knows how to duplicate them.

Just as threatening is the new darling from the computer industry — the home media center PC — which brings whole-house, all-media storage and playback.

But, done correctly, DRM could also pilot copyright owners to a new distribution window — maybe even with long-coveted “day-and-date” theatrical releases to authorized equipment. “Authorized” could mean that some titles won’t flow over certain “unprotected” connectors — a debate known as “selectable output controls.” (See the Oct. 6, 2003, issue for a translation of selectable-output controls.)

SELECTABLE OUTPUT DEBATE

That last point — selectable output controls — is what vexes the CE side. As a group, they’re loath to let anybody make any of their connectors “not work,” in someone’s living room, because some copyright-holder somewhere said so.

At their core, CE companies view the connectivity of their gear to different types of devices (which they may also make) as features. In their view, hobbling such included features is totally counterproductive.

Then there’s the computer industry, which continues to evolve a line of high-end PCs, with attractive navigational systems, to store and present all types of content — digital photographs, TV shows, movies, music. Plug in the broadband cable, service the house. With an “approved” method to keep copyrighted material safe, home media centers become plausible content “middlemen.”

That, in turn, vexes cable. Its unease about DRM happens when imagining Consumer Jane navigating herself to a legitimate (read: copyright approved) electronic place — to download, stream, or otherwise view video content over its broadband cable connection. The disquiet stems from the possibility that the place Jane goes to get the TV show, or movie, or whatever, isn’t owned by or affiliated with the cable provider.

(Note that home-media centers, which look way sleeker than regular PCs, will come with things like a built-in DVR and DVD burner. Sans copyright protection, that aims apprehension right back at copyright holders.)

On the other hand, if cable can solve how to be a “trusted” extension of a home network, such that its devices are deemed “safe” by copyright holders, interesting things could happen.

The same is true of “trusted” DSL/home network configurations. Ditto for satellite/home network extensions, although that lack of a return channel makes the idea trickier.

GOOD GATES, GOOD NEIGHBORS

From a consumer perspective, it’s usually the case that any type of security is an inconvenience. (Look at your keychain. It probably has too many keys for your taste.) Nonetheless, getting good programs onto consumer gadgetry is clearly going to need some kind of protection — or else the producers of those good programs won’t make it available.

Industrially, the worst-case scenario (except perhaps for lawyers) is that the discord surrounding DRM steers the entire matter to court. It doesn’t appear that anyone wants that to happen.

The best-case scenario for DRM is that it becomes a mechanism to build and enact new business models for quality content, so that it can play within a “trusted domain” of cable-ready consumer devices. Easier said than done.

The work of DRM is happening in hypotheticals, so far. Each industry’s biggest brains are working on it, attentively and warily. The real action will coincide with the identification of specific applications, perhaps as part of a deal, that need DRM. As just about any technologist would submit, step one of good engineering practice is to clearly define the problem to be solved.

Stumped by gibberish? Visit www.translation-please.com.

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