So far it seems we have only focused on the brouhaha that surrounds DRM, and perhaps rightly so, because it directly affects Joey public and his/her perception of content ownership. However there is a much more far-reaching issue that could become an even greater headache for content owners in general and this is the whole question of Rights Management. Now where are the lifeboats?
The commercial aspect of the content economy is made up of organisations and businesses that acquire and use or sell content (or a license to its use). These activities are normally governed by national / international copyright law and the commercial frameworks applicable to the specific industries (e.g. music, broadcast, film and publishing etc.). As with most things, the internet has had a disruptive impact on these activities especially in the following ways:
- Established content businesses have to adapt to an overall increase in the speed of doing business (e.g. instant global content distribution at the click of a button).
- New ways of using and reusing content are constantly evolving off the back of internet / broadband / wifi / mobile technologies (e.g. social networking/User generated content)
- Increasingly antiquated copyright laws and commercial frameworks are not reflective of the times we live in (hence the repeated calls for a review of the global copyright system)
The reaction of the content industry to these challenges are varied, but not fast enough it would seem, because many organisations are only just beginning to implement the Rights Management systems that will address these challenges, and hopefully see them through the interesting times ahead.
The perceived problems with DRM are only a small part of the complete mess faced by the digital content economy, yet we are subject to relentless coverage of them. In my opinion, The relationship between DRM and Rights Management is akin to an iceberg whereby DRM is the 1/10th visible portion above the waterline, and Rights Management makes up the 9/10th lurking below the surface and invisible to the content industry’s Titanic. I don’t wish to sound alarmist, but does anyone know where the lifeboats are located?
Indeed they do, and according to theregister.co.uk, a woman in the USA has started a class action law suit against the combative Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) who she claims employed fraudulent means in gathering their evidence. It would seem that the legal sword can cut both ways after all.
In a recent post that touched on the RIAA’s legal (read ‘bully’) strategy, I stated that this eventuality may well occur if things (i.e. legal actions/threats) continued unchecked, and this prediction has been borne out by this class action. It may well just be only the beginning as more people take a stance against legal actions that ‘infringe’ on their personal liberties. It has always been my opinion that legal action should not take the place of other, more considered, approaches to resolving a problem. However, as with some of their past responses, the recording industry often appear to have added a dash of panic and desperation in their reaction to digital adversity.
So how long can they keep it up before they finally learn?
An article in Guardian IT website has highlighted the fact that purchasers of DRM protected Google Video content stand to lose access to their content after the service shuts down in August 2007. According to this, and other articles, it just goes to prove the argument against DRM with a vengeance.
To be fair this is not a surprising reaction and I can see the rationale behind it. However it also highlights some issues and observations as follows:
- DRM works. DRM was always designed to enable the content provider to shut off access to their content at the flick of a switch, in which case Google DRM will have done its job very well. The problem therefore lies with the judgement of the operator in question i.e. Google.
- Rent versus Buy. When you ‘buy’ DRM protected content you do not really ‘own’ it; instead you are effectively renting access to it, and consequently are at the mercy of the content provider. However, as much as we blame content providers and DRM, the public perception of digital content, (even those without DRM protection), must also be adjusted to recognise that it is not a tangible product and that different rules of ‘ownership’ may apply.
- DRM Interoperability? There is no such thing, and this has always been a fundamental issue with DRM and no apparent resolution in sight. The launch of Google Video and its proprietary DRM only added to this concern even back in 2006, and it would still seem from this latest development that no DRM is good DRM.
The burning question is where should the blame lie: the protection technology, or the content provider/operator?
Now that EMI and Universal have announced / started offering DRM free music, it only looks like a matter of time before the other two major labels (i.e. Warner Music Group and SonyBMG) follow suite. The question is how will they do so, and what are the likely impacts of these developments?
In the first instance, it would appear that DRM free music is a ‘no brainer’ option that should have been offered right from the start, but that would be the proverbial 20/20 hindsight vision talking. Sometimes we need severe pain to achieve the clarity of vision required to make very bold decisions. In this instance the two companies have chosen slightly different approaches to implementing their DRM-free music offers as follows:
- In April 2007, EMI launched a global premium download initiative that offered higher quality downloadable versions of its entire repertoire without DRM protection. This was initially only available on Apple’s iTunes music store, but has since expanded to include other retailers including Amazon’s soon to be launched music store.
- On the other hand Universal Music Group announced its intention to continue testing digital music sales options by offering thousands of albums and tracks for sale without DRM (but only within the trial period of August 2007 – January 2008). It has enlisted several outlets for this experiment including; Rhapsody, Wal-Mart, Google and Amazon, but significantly excluded Apple’s iTunes.
Both companies see DRM-free music as only another option to market; and they sited the lack of DRM interoperability, (and the resulting inconvenience to consumer), as a major factor in their decision. The main difference is related to their apparent degree of commitment, EMI has offered everything in its repertoire, but Universal has chosen a more measured, trials-based, approach. In any case, it now remains to be seen when, rather than whether, the other two major record companies will join the fun.
Does this mean the end of DRM? I am not so sure, because according to a DRMWatch article, two recent consumer surveys show that users are slowly becoming more aware of and, dare I say, accepting of DRM. Furthermore, there is now some speculation that Universal’s DRM-free experiment may include forensic watermarking technology in the music files which could perhaps be used to identify the purchasor of the DRM-free tracks.
Hmmm, not so DRM-free after all it would appear. In any case, our penchant for ‘free’ may soon lead to cost-free, DRM-free music. Now wouldn’t that be something? Wait a minute, I think that already happened with Napster back in 2000!
Last Saturday I attended a Prince concert which was part of his exclusive 21 nights in London’s O2 Arena. In addition to an electrifying performance, attendees were also treated to a copy of the album, for the single ticket price of £31.21. Judging by the mixed reactions on the decision to give away free copies of the album in the Mail on Sunday, it would seem that some parties (i.e. consumers, media and the artiste) are happy, while others (i.e. music retailers and record companies) are livid. Remarkably there is not one mention of DRM in this scenario. Could this be the way of things to come?
A significant and recurring theme in Prince’s performance, and on the promotional website and blog, can be summed up in his exhortation of the band’s performance as “Real music by real musicians”. It strikes me that this may just be the beginning of a resurgence in performance oriented music, and that established artistes (e.g. Barbara Streisand and the Rolling Stones) are now returning to their original mainstay of live performances and providing direct concert experience to their consumers.
This analogue world uses digital technology strictly as supporting cast –perhaps as it should be. Doubtless the aim of the concert and CD giveaway is focused around promotion (of Prince?), and this has being done without the help of traditional record industry players like the labels and retailers. It also gives lie to the much hyped position that illegal downloads are killing off the CD, because over 200,000 free copies of this CD album are in circulation in the UK, along with an untold number of ripped tracks now resident in personal MP3 players and file sharing networks.
According to a Time Magazine article, there is also a sound business reason for taking the free CD route in the UK since Prince stands to make more money upfront (via the newspaper and advertisers) than if it had been released in the conventional manner. His last album, 3121, sold only 80,000 copies. You can do the math. It would seem that the once mighty CD album has now become merely an enabler, or loss leader (akin to the CD single of yore), and no longer a bona fide product in its own right. The artiste, or at least an experience of his art, has now become the real product.
Is it really, and does this refer to the technology or just its use? Following on my last post about the problem with people, here is a flipside argument which focuses on the trouble with DRM which, according to some of the comments on my first blog post, is conceptually flawed. Read on to find out why this may not even be relevant at all.
Some key observation points in this debate include:
- DRM must be invisible to the end-user. Current DRM implementations can be unintuitive and inconvenient for content consumers, and this is a major turn-off for the end-user. One key issue here is interoperability because these systems often struggle to work with each other.
- Restriction versus Enabler Philosophy. The latter mindset will need to be emphasised more. In fact, the increasing use of less restrictive / forensic technologies like watermarking and fingerprinting seem to point the way forward.
- Stakeholders. Commercial stakeholders really need to embrace the fact that old model revenue streams are no longer assured in the digital age; therefore they must continue to exploit other methods of exploiting content (not just paying lip service with the underlying hope that this is not really the case).
- Technology Last. A purely technological solution will not work, and in fact should be the last piece of the jigsaw. My point is that current DRM technology is usually focused on enforcing the old world mostly analog business models in the digital domain.
- Cure the disease not just the symptom. In any case the main bulk of effort should really be focused on evolving and re-aligning the increasingly antiquated global Intellectual Property system and Rights Management landscape to work better in a digital world, rather than trying to cure the symptoms with a knee jerk technology based solution like DRM.
Those are just my two cents worth. What about you, what do you think?
Note – Original post, including comments, can be found at: http://www.bcs.org/content/conBlogPost/101