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DRM, Content Protection, and the future of the Web

October 14, 2013 Leave a comment

I remember once when the mere mention of DRM stirred up such a frenzied reaction of blood boiling anger, outrage and disgust, from even the meekest of the meek. Thankfully those days are long gone, and DRM has been largely forgotten, or has it?

DRM Wordle

DRM and the Web

Sadly no, because DRM recently reared its dramatic head yet again following a decision by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to bring video content protection into scope for discussion in their HTML5 Working Group. So what does this mean? Well, it depends on who you ask of course, because the usual pros vs. cons battle lines, championed by various organisations and pundits, have opened up with distinct perspectives on the matter. The following are summary points, culled from a quick web search on the topic.

Some viewpoints in support of the decision:

  1. Sir Tim Berners Lee on Encrypted content and the Open Web – reiterated that W3C staff remain passionate about the open Web, and indeed abhor certain forms of content protection and DRM. However, he went on to explain how putting content protection in scope for discussion is the lesser evil, given that exclusion of this topic from the HTML WG discussions will not necessarily exclude it from anyone’s systems.
  2. W3C Encrypted Media Extensions (EME) Editor’s draft 17th September 2013 – According to the abstract, “the proposal extends HTMLMediaElement providing APIs to control playback of protected content.”  Also, the specification does not define any particular content protection or DRM system, but instead it defines a common API that may be used to discover, select and interact with various such mechanisms / DRM solutions.
  3. ArsTechnica “DRM in HTML5 is a victory for the open Web, not a defeat” – In this post, Peter Bright argues that EME will happen, one way or another, especially given how some important companies (i.e. Microsoft, Google and Netflix) are actively developing the specification. Furthermore, distributors of protected video content already use DRM, albeit outside the Web (e.g. via Microsoft’s Silverlight, Adobe Flash and / or mobile Apps). Finally, he concludes that EME will provide a way to deliver protected content via the Web instead of just using proprietary applications and plug-ins.  .

Other viewpoints against the decision:

  1. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), “Lowering Your Standards: DRM and the Future of the W3C” – The EFF strongly objects to the inclusion of “playback of protected content” into the scope of HTML Working Group’s new charter, stating that such a move would mean the controversial Encrypted Media Extension could be included in the HTML5.1 standard, which would effectively cede control of browsers to 3rd parties (i.e. content providers). Furthermore, they argue, this could ultimately damage the W3C’s reputation / perception as guardian of the open Web, and that other media formats (e.g. images, fonts and music) may push for equivalent content protection standards, over a rapidly fragmenting Web.
  2. Boing Boing “W3C’s DRM for HTML5 sets the stage for jailing programmers…” – Cory Doctorow discusses how the decision will open the possibility of punitive fines or imprisonment for programmers who dare to attempt improving web browsers in ways that displease Hollywood.
  3. DefectiveByDesign “Tell W3C: We don’t want the Hollyweb” – Calls for the W3C to reject the EME proposal, stating that it would damage freedom on the Web and enable unethical, restrictive business models, as well as proliferation of DRM plug-ins needed to play protected media content.

Regardless of which side you take in this debate, it is probably disingenuous to think that DRM ever went away, if anything, it has in fact been thriving in various digital content services and technologies, well outside the limelight and notoriety it had in the past – perhaps until now. One of the key things I learnt during my sojourn into the DRM debate over the last decade, was that most content businesses are ultimately pragmatic in nature, and they now understand that suing customers (or casual pirates depending on viewpoint) can be suicidal, hence the move away from dramatic headlines and into developing services that users actually want to use and pay for.  The saying holds true that the only good DRM system is invisible or transparent to the end user or consumer.

It could be argued that this current debate has arisen because the Web is designed, and perceived by many, to be open and universal, but it is this selfsame universality that allows even potentially restrictive models to have a place on the Web. In fighting for its own survival, and by openly considering inclusion of something like content protection, the W3C is actually living up to the open and universal remit of the Web. However, a real danger remains that commercial interests (aka content businesses) will almost certainly seize this opportunity to compete using flawed and restrictive business models, which will only throw DRM in the faces of their users, and possibly restart litigious campaigns against their users, once the latter decide again that unrestricted (and literally free) content is best. Truly, those that don’t learn from past mistakes are only doomed to repeat them.

In conclusion, although this is probably more than a mere storm in the proverbial teacup, the signs portend that this too shall pass into the annals of DRM aftershocks, in the grand scheme of things.  I say this with some confidence because whilst the DRM battle rages on, the world of digital content, copyright and the Internet continues to evolve new opportunities and challenges that will reshape the digital landscape. A recent example concerns the IP value of curation, e.g. playlists, as a candidate for copyright (e.g. see Ministry of Sound versus Spotify)

BTW:  I will be moderating a panel session, discussing Over the Top (OTT) video content protection, at the Copyright and Technology 2013 London conference, later this week. My panel of experts will most likely have something interesting to say about DRM and the Web. Why not join the debate at the event, if you are in London, otherwise I’ll keep you posted on this blog.

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How Can You Measure Real Value?

April 2, 2012 Leave a comment

It’s been a while since my last post, but then nothing much has changed, perhaps because, in real terms, a few weeks is really not that long, even in the fast-paced world of digital technology and innovation. However, it could just be proof of that old saying: “the more things change, the more they remain the same”, right?

Although, on the surface, it might not appear that much has changed, there are evident signs of continuous progress in several areas, including: technology and innovation; user experience and social networking / media / business; mobility and data of the large variety (aka big data). Many other experts and analysts, across various media and other channels, do a great job of observing / commenting on these topics and trends that I won’t bother trying to rehash them here.

In any case, the point I really wish to explore is that such developments, trends and indicators seem to point towards a new value exchange paradigm and/or system, sometime in the not too distant future. This notion is clearly described by Tim O’Reilly, at the last Strata Conference, where he talked about a fundamental need to find better ways for “measuring the economic impact of the sharing economy”. Among other things, he asks the key question, in my opinion, of how to measure the real value of sharing, particularly where traditional economic value yardsticks, (e.g. typical financial metrics), are no longer adequate for the task. He also described the often unmeasured benefits to be derived from the sharing economy (e.g. enriching an ecosystem of which you are part), versus the sometimes destructive impact of a profit-led, financially measured system (e.g. the contribution of global financial institutions to the current economic shambles). It would appear in this new paradigm that the way forward would involve “creating more value than you capture”, which, somewhat counter-intuitively, actually works to your advantage.

Perhaps this paradigm shift will be most realisable, (at least for the content industry), via a strategy of diversification and multi-publishing, which together increases the likelihood of better traction / success for content, via multiple touch-points, partnerships and hooks to end consumers. A couple of examples, which describe real life scenarios in e-book publishing and music licensing, are outlined below as follows:

  1. E-Book Publishing: A recent post on CopyrightandTechnology.com discusses Harry Potter’s DRM Free e-Book offering, which runs somewhat counter to conventional wisdom for publishing such valuable properties in fully DRM’ed electronic formats, for fear of piracy. However this works for Harry Potter on many levels, especially considering how this would complement and create further opportunities for their existing and future merchandising initiatives.
  2. Music Licensing: An article in the Berklee Music Business Journal examined the pros and cons of Coca-Cola’s equity stake in a music licensing startup. On the one hand, a major global consumer brand partners with a music outfit to source original musical content for its marketing campaigns; on the other hand the artistes, (often independent, unsigned and eager to be heard), get an opportunity to gain access to Coca-Cola’s global marketing might – which beats anything a record label can provide these days. Verdict: Win / Win!
  3. Streaming Movies: The key players in on-demand video streaming services, e.g.: Netflix, Hulu, Amazon (i.e. Prime and LoveFilm), and latterly Sky, all offer different value propositions to the consumer, but in my opinion, the winner/s will likely emerge from those that are willing to leverage multiple customer propositions / channels / formats (e.g. books, music, DVD and perhaps devices).

In conclusion, it is becoming increasingly harder to ignore such trends / evidence / indicators that suggest a move towards multiple consumer propositions (including pricing), multi touch points (channels / interactions) and multi-formats is rapidly gaining ground. This makes it even more imperative to find a better yardstick for measuring the real value of content, products and services for both suppliers and consumers. It seems to me that we’re likely heading for a post monetary value exchange and recognition system, and hopefully one that is more in keeping with the post-global realities of a digitally connected planet. I remain optimistic, and fully convinced that money is not, and perhaps has never really been, the best yardstick for measuring true value.

When does protection becomes disruption?

September 24, 2010 Leave a comment

Two recent articles, pointed out to me by a couple of colleagues, serve to highlight a flaw in the over zealous application and misuse of some DRM based content protection mechanisms; basically when does content protection become disruption?

The first article, thanks to Brian Runciman, deals with Games DRM, and describes the fallout of presenting legitimate gamers with ever more complicated DRM schemes which effectively prevents some users from enjoying their legally purchased products. It also highlights some unintended consequences of Games DRM, and concludes with the now old mantra that any good DRM solution should be transparent to legitimate users. We still live in hope!

The other article, thanks to Ian Cole, is really an alert notification a SANS newsletter about multiple vulnerabilities (e.g. buffer and integer overflows) in a critical ActiveX control within Microsoft’s DRM system. According to a Security Focus entry, this control could allow an attacker to execute malicious code on a users machine – talk about content protection becoming a threat in itself!

Conclusion: The continued perception of DRM remains that, at best, it is intrusive and potentially unsafe. This in spite of the fact that DRM is slowly and quietly becoming embedded in the fabric of more and more digital content, including streamed content (e.g. music, movies and electronic games). Oh, and this will have an even bigger impact on the pre-owned or after market for digital content as discussed in a recent post on the BCS Games Blog.

Is There Anything Like Acceptable DRM?

July 2, 2009 Leave a comment

Apparently so, and in the world of computer games no less. Yes I know this confounds previous media coverage, or user experience, with games DRM (e.g. think Spore), but there is strong indication that one company may have come up with something close to acceptable DRM for gamers.

So last Friday I spoke with the CEO and Marketing VP of Byteshield Inc., who confirmed that their award winning, eponymous product had been endorsed by none other than fervent gamers-only DRM watchdog / group, PRISM (or Players Resisting Invasive Security Measures), on their gamer-advocacy website at:www.reclaimyourgame.com. According to an issued statement, they found ByteShield to be “safe, transparent and non-invasive” after extensive testing. So how come you ask?

Well for starters, Byteshield offers protection via an online activation mechanism which works on the principle that only genuine users will be able to activate / access their game via a specific key (purchased with the game) by downloading integral parts of the game code from a secure server. Those that tested it claim it is transparent and non-invasive to the gaming experience, and they would “have no problem recommending it to other gamers”

The few limitations I can think of include platform support (Windows only for now), and connectivity requirements (i.e. probably works best via Broadband). But these are not show-stoppers judging by thenumbers of potential customers who now consider broadband a necessity.

Also although I think this is an effective approach to content control, that might work equally well with video content, I am not so sure it is applicable to high volume, low value content such as music tracks or ring tones, but that remains to be seen.

So there you have it, finally a Technology Protection Mechanism (TPM) that caters for the needs of its key stakeholders, which in this case are the developers, publishers and end-users of the games!

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Note: This post was previously published on my BCS DRM Blog, where you can find the original post, and reader comments, in the archives.

Copyright, Digital Content, and the Internet

June 14, 2009 Leave a comment

The second World Copyright Summit, which took place last week, at the Ronald Reagan Conference Centre in Washington DC, was a well attended and successful event that drew great interest from all key stakeholders in the 21st Century’s fast-evolving, global creative economy.

Note: This post is taken from the executive summary of a report I have written about this event, which can also be found here:World Copyright Summit 2009 – Report.pdf
The main objective of the Copyright Summit was, as stated on the conference tag-line, to explore “New Frontiers for Creators in the Marketplace”, and this was achieved by providing a platform for the stakeholders (represented in both speakers and audience) to engage with each other in a series of dialogues, interviews, discussions, keynotes and general networking. One immediate outcome from this has been the wider recognition of a few key messages, which are outlined below as follows:
1. Time to Change Copyright
Right from the very first keynote, on day one, to several sessions on the second day, it became increasingly clear that most stakeholders are in agreement over the need for some far reaching changes to be made on the current copyright system before it can become more effective in protecting and incentivising creative works in a dynamic digital environment.
2. Need a Central, Unified and Authoritative Global Rights Registry
The above was identified in several of the sessions as a key enabler towards a more appropriate and effective rights management mechanism in a global digital context. The key issues are global / technology related, therefore the solution would appear to lie in taking a unified approach to implementing what some refer to as a global database for content rights
3. Accelerate the Shift towards New Business Models / Mindsets
The Google Books Settlement was repeatedly held up as a prime example of the art-of-the-possible in reaching a constructive and satisfactory outcome for all stakeholders. This model may be more difficult to accomplish in other media formats, but the fundamental requirements of an open, collaborative approach / mind-set by all stakeholders is mandatory for success. It is also becoming clear that content in digital / non-physical forms may be more appropriately positioned as a collaborative service, instead of the product-unit-centric worldview of the pre-digital content world.
In conclusion, and on the above terms, this summit can be deemed a success, and CISAC -the event organisers, deserve a hearty congratulation for their commitment in putting it all together. However, it might even be more of a success if and when the mid – longer term outcome of this Summit leads to some concrete changes in the world copyright system; and perhaps in the evolution of an authoritative / unified global rights registry; as well as the adoption of a more collaborative approach, in both business models and mindsets, by the content industries and all other stakeholders.
It is this author’s sincere hope, and recommendation, that the next version of this Summit will see the inclusion of more representatives from the developing world, as well as the much over-looked consumer / end-user stakeholder group, (which includes: ordinary citizens, students and the younger, next generation of users), that will ultimately deliver the verdict on any / all future initiatives on copyright..
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Jude Umeh is a senior consultant and enterprise architect within Capgemini, and is something of a rights management evangelist. You can follow his Tweet-stream here

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Note: This post was previously published on my BCS DRM Blog, where you can find the original post, and reader comments, in the archives. Also published at: http://www.capgemini.com/technology-blog/2009/06/copyright_digital_content_and/

DRM at the Olympics and other possible signs of progress

July 18, 2008 Leave a comment

Certain unrelated recent developments (e.g. DRM at the Olympics, Ad-supported Pirate Videos, and potential ISP Music Download services) appear to show, what might be described as, positive progress towards embracing the evolving digital content economy. Hope springs eternal.

These notable developments, in three continents no less, include:

USA: Media Companies choose to profit from pirated YouTube Video Clips. The title says it all, and the article, from the New York Times, demonstrates how some major content companies are trying to explore other ways of making advertising lemonade from copyright infringement lemons.

UK: Possible ISP backed Flat Fee Music Deal. Although this appears to have turned into a damp squib, (albeit with publicity upside for the likes of PlayLouder and Virgin Broadband), the fact that the proposition of a flat-fee, all-you-can-eat, P2P based music sharing service supported by a major ISP could gain so much traction / buzz in the blogosphere effectively demonstrates a potential opportunity, worthy of further exploration, for the music labels and ISPs (off the back of their recent agreement).

China: Free Music / Protect Video – Perhaps as befitting a nation with the world’s eyes on it, there are two developments worthy of mention here:

  1. Google launches free music download service in China – This was announced in February, and will enable Google users in China to search and download DRM-free songs. Although the advert based revenue is to be split between Google / the music labels / hosting service provider, some analysts still wonder if the major music labels ought to be worried.
  2. DRM at the Beijing Olympics. According to this recent DRMWatch article, China’s CCTV has chosen SafeNet’s OMA 2.0 DRM for protecting Internet video coverage of the Beijing Olympics. Ok, so there’s that dreaded three letter acronym again, but this is arguably a good example of the appropriate use of DRM technology for valuable, time sensitive, content.

In conclusion, the above are just some examples of steady progress towards embracing the changes, challenges and opportunities offered by the evolving digital content landscape. Who knows, perhaps tomorrow there might even be a severe outbreak of world peace. As said before, hope springs internal (sic).

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Note: This post was previously published on my BCS DRM Blog, where you can find the original post, and reader comments, in the archives.

No DRM for Audio books

March 5, 2008 Leave a comment

Several recent articles and blog postings have reported that some publishers are now starting to push DRM free audio books. Could this be the dawn of enlightenment for the publishing industry?

According to a New York Times article, major publishers like Random House have started removing the copy-protection mechanism from downloadable audio books in order to enable easy transfer to different digital devices, among other things. Other major publishers like Simon & Schuster and Penguin, (as confirmed in the Guardian), look set to follow suit, while still others like HarperCollins remain content to watch from the sidelines for the time being. Now where have we seen this before?

Reactions from the likes of Gartner’s Blog have hailed this development as a smart reaction to the way the world actually works. Now it remains to be seen if the publishing industry will do the same with ebooks and set it DRM-free, or better still, just plain free as we speculated in an earlier post.

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Note: This post was previously published on the BCS DRM Blog. Here is a link to the original post and reader comments.