Digital Rights Management
Firms at odds over digital rights


Digital rights management technology will play a vital role in
e-commerce, but a lack of standardisation makes it hard for firms to
know which system to back, says Tim Anderson

Digital Rights Management

Consumers carrying home their smart new Apple iPods might not realise
that they are buying into proprietary digital rights management. The
iPod will happily play unprotected content in formats such as MP3 and
WAV, but wont play protected content in any format other than AAC
protected by Fairplay, Apple’s digital rights management (DRM) system.

Equally, if you purchase music from Apple’s iTunes store (assuming that it
eventually opens in Europe), you will find you cannot easily download
the content to your Creative Nomad MP3 player, for example, which only
understands the DRM used by Microsofts Windows Media Audio (WMA) or, in
recent models, Reals Helix DRM 10.

It will get worse. And for IT
managers this may be bad news because standards used to guard consumer
content will no doubt leak into products for corporates. Philips and
Sony between them are due to launch a new DRM technology based on their
acquisition of InterTrust last year. With Microsoft, Apple, Real and
Philips/Sony thats at least four major players with incompatible DRM
systems a situation that is sure to cause misery for consumers.

Efforts to protect CDs have failed, but when most music is delivered
electronically, DRM-protected music is likely to become the norm. If the
music industry is to have any future, DRM must succeed. The problem is
that DRM delivers zero benefit to the consumer, for whom it is merely a
cost and a hassle. It exists solely to protect the publisher.

Consumers will put up with DRM if it is seamless and convenient, but not
when it brings them nothing but pain. There are several possible
outcomes. One is that a single body will win the DRM wars. It might be
Microsoft, which currently has the most widespread adoption, and has
been strengthened by partnerships with the likes of Dell and Disney. It
might be Apple, especially since HP is partnering with Apple for its
forthcoming mobile music devices. It might be Philips and Sony, late
entrants but with formidable clout in the home entertainment market.

However, its unlikely that any of these major vendors will willingly cede
control and license fees to a competitor. The resulting format wars
could well have an unwanted result: consumers may seek out unprotected
content and turn their back on DRM altogether.

If DRM is really
going to work, there has to be a cross-industry, non-profit solution.
Any two of the entities mentioned above could make this happen. It
requires the setting up of an organisation whose sole function is to
specify and manage DRM on behalf of the content providers on the one
hand, and the software and hardware vendors on the other. It would be
analogous to the Liberty Alliance, set up to counter Microsofts Passport
with an open standard for network identity and having considerable
success. Without unity, DRM is heading deeply into the mire.