Downloadable content, with locks on the side


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The music industry discovered a few years ago that the DRM it was using to deter copying wasn’t locking down songs as well as it was locking customers to a particular vendor: Apple’s iTunes Store. So the major labels have grudgingly abandoned Digital Restrictions Management, or DRM, on paid downloads, although they still require encryption to be used on other products such as all-you-can-eat music subscription services.

Now, Hollywood is looking at a similar problem posed by DRM. It hasn’t stopped piracy, and it’s certainly not helping the sale of downloadable movies. It’s also laid the groundwork for a repeat of the iTunes phenomenon: with dueling DRMs that work with different sets of devices, consumers may flock to a single supplier to avoid compatibility problems.


Against that backdrop, a group of studios and record labels have joined with a handful of major technology companies, ISPs and retailers in a coalition to develop a new approach to distributing content digitally. Think of it as a standard for media delivered through the Net, in the way that DVD is a standard for packaged movies and CD is a standard for packaged songs. It’s also a very ambitious attempt to make DRM palatable to consumers. Some anti-DRM forces might argue that the effort is a bit like, let’s see, what’s an analogy that no one will misinterpret ... painting lipstick on a pig. But the proponents say it’s really about giving customers what they want. If the initiative works as intended, it will remove the barriers to customers watching or listening to the content they acquire on any of their devices, wherever they happen to be. No one will notice the locks on a file until they try to IM it to a friend. That’s the theory, at least.

Formerly known as Open Market, this effort -- spearheaded by Sony Pictures’ Mitch Singer -- has been in the works for more than a year. TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington did an article on it last month, describing it as a ‘last ditch’ effort to preserve DRM. I think it’s more likely that the new Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem initiative is merely Hollywood’s third stab at controlling digital copying (after CSS and AACS). And given that the studios have never sold a home-video product without some kind of copy protection, if DECE doesn’t work, they’ll try something else.

The ecosystem envisioned by Singer et al revolves around a common set of formats, interfaces and other standards. Devices built to the DECE specifications would be able to play any DECE-branded content and work with any DECE-certified service. The goal is to create for downloads the same kind of interoperability that’s been true for physical products, such as CDs and DVDs. Where it gets really interesting, though, is the group’s stated intention to make digital files as flexible and permissive as CDs, at least within the confines of someone’s personal domain. Once you’ve acquired a file, you could play it on any of your devices -- if it couldn’t be passed directly from one DECE-ready device to another, you’d be allowed to download additional copies. And when you’re away from home, you could stream the file to any device with a DECE-compatible Web browser.

This kind of domain-based approach to DRM is a big improvement for consumers over the systems now used by most music subscription services and movie-download sites, such as Movielink. CinemaNow is moving in that direction, and Apple already uses a domain-based system. But Apple won’t let any other manufacturers use its DRM, so to take full advantage of it, people have to use iPods and Apple TVs. With DECE, consumers wouldn’t be wedded to a single manufacturer; any company would be able to build DECE-compatible gear.

Ahh, but which companies will? So far, the list includes several big-name brands in computers, networking and consumer electronics, but there are some glaring absences, including Apple, Samsung and Dell. On the content side, Disney’s not on board. Standards are like languages: If significant segments don’t agree to use them, they don’t succeed in unifying the population. Beyond that, there are real issues in the details. For example, will there be a way to adapt existing devices to the new system, providing backward compatibility? That strikes me as a big stumbling block, given Hollywood’s insistence that DRM support be baked into devices, not bolted on later (for a reminder of this, revisit the debate over the broadcast flag).

Still, if the comments by Singer (who presides over the DECE) reflect the studios’ and labels’ thinking about DECE, it could be a very good thing for consumers. In an interview this morning, Singer said the initiative shouldn’t be seen as an anti-piracy effort, at least not in the traditional sense. ‘We’re battling piracy by giving consumers a much more flexible model,’ he said. ‘We’re minimizing the need to pirate content by offering consumers much more flexibility and choice.’ Jeff Lawrence of Intel put it another way. The group’s goal is to meet consumers’ expectations for what they can do (legally) with media, he said, and those expectations are based on what people have been able to do with content that has no DRM. ‘All the things that you want to do with your movies, that’s the experience we want to enable,’ Lawrence said.

Los Angeles Times file photo


-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times’ Opinion Manufacturing Division.