Digital rights nightmare

How do you choose the right DRM provider?

Digital Rights Management exists in a Catch-22 situation: Content owners want to ensure that their intellectual property is protected when it’s being viewed or heard online by consumers who download it.

Yet at the same time, the more “bulletproof” the security, the more complex it is for the consumer to even access the content.

It’s a problem that isn’t likely to go away any time soon.

But that’s not to say that there aren’t hundreds of companies all promising the holy grail of DRM services — from IBM to two unknown tech geeks in a garage. And the many options and lack of standards are creating an even bigger headache.

The concept of DRM is simple: To ensure the integrity of the content, protect it from unlawful use, enforce the rights and track usage.

The complication comes in the level of DRM required for a specific piece of content — a music file, musicvideo, vidgame or full-length feature, for example — which varies depending upon the “platform” being used to access it. PCs are more vulnerable to hackers than handheld devices, such as MP3 players, whose only function is to playback content securely.

As a result, there are no simple protection standards for content creators and distributors to adopt.

Another obstacle lies in the fact that the technologies offered by companies providing DRM varies greatly, further complicating the issue for content owners because choosing a company to provide DRM comes down to trusting not just the technology, but the company standing behind it as well. Decisions aren’t necessarily based solely on cost or technical superiority.

Thus it’s no surprise that a more established company like InterTrust has been able to land record labels such as BMG and Universal Music Group as content partners. The unheard of startup — even if it offers a superior DRM service — is often passed over.

Ira Rubenstein, senior veep of digital distribution for Sony Pictures Digital Entertainment, says that when the studio considered DRM companies to oversee the protection of its online content, how well the vendor was managed had to be a major consideration.

“Because you’re entrusting your content to a company, it becomes important to feel confident that they’re financially sound and will be around for the long haul,” he says. (Sony declined to comment on which company they chose.)

For some, Microsoft’s Windows Media Player is preferable to such alternatives as RealNetworks’ Realplayer and Apple’s QuickTime because it satisfies two important criteria: First, the player can be widely used because it has the advantage of Microsoft’s massively installed Windows base, and secondly the DRM is built-in, providing for a seamless use by the end user.

While many content distribbers still prefer RealPlayer, Media Player is used exclusively by entertainment Netcaster CinemaNow.com (a Web site that streams feature length films-on-demand) precisely for these reasons.

According to CEO Curt Mavis, CEO, “the Windows Media Player provides security and peace of mind for content owners who are much more interested in having a solid delivery service than being worried about the small percentage of random pirates who will always find a way to do what they will regardless of the encryption scheme. And because the player is part of the operating system, there are no player/security integration issues.”

Agreeing with this assessment is Scott Sander, CEO of SightSound Technologies (a video/audio download and file-share e-commerce company supporting the motion picture and music industries as they adopt digital distribution).

He points out that it’s the unique architecture of the Microsoft operating system that allows the company to successfully hide the “key” to itsunderlying DRM technology.

But if you ask Dave Goldberg, none of this works or ever will.

The CEO of Launch Media believes that efforts to secure content over the Internet are useless — at least when it comes to music, since there are already “billions” of CDs out there without any protection (he adds that while companies have been pitching security for music for the past five years, it’s been a consistent failure).

“It’s easy to copy music so unless you can stop consumers all of the time, it’s a wasted effort,” he says. “A better solution would be to provide the content freely and compensate content owners through licensing and royalties.” (Launch’s advertising-based business model is based on the free distribution of music).

One other option, says Goldberg, is to create security based on “secure access.”

For example, when a person logs onto AOL or WallStreetJournal.com, nobody else can enter using that same user name/password and so a download or stream can be restricted to that single person. This could avoid many of the technical headaches because it works directly with the end-user, securing his/her access rather than trying to protect the content all the time from everyone.

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