CES: A friendly DRM?


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LAS VEGAS -- The Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem announced six new members at the Consumer Electronics Show here, taking one more (small) step toward its goal of creating a standard way for consumers to acquire movies and other types of entertainment online. With the additions of two major consumer-electronics makers (Panasonic and Samsung), the initiative now has the support of five of the largest TV manufacturers, six Hollywood studios, five powerhouse tech companies, and an assortment of players in other segments of the industry’s value chain.

The group has lots of heavy lifting still to do. Among other things, the companies have to settle on formats for streamed or downloaded media, a method to limit sharing and technical requirements for devices, said Mitch Singer, a Sony Pictures executive who serves as the DECE’s president. A bigger challenge, though, will be getting the public to buy into what amounts to a very slick system of electronic locks.


As befits an initiative that began in Hollywood, the DECE is about making DRM systems work better for both consumers and content providers. It tries to remove the complexities and incompatibilities associated with DRM-wrapped files -- for instance, the inability to play a Bruce Springsteen video bought from iTunes on a Sony Ericsson music phone. It would do so by creating and operating a database of the music and movies people buy, as well as the devices they’ve registered. Under the DECE system, you’d be able to watch that Spingsteen video on your phone without having to buy it again or convert it into a different format.

Of course, files that have no DRM, such as the ones traded freely online through file-sharing networks, can be used on virtually any device and passed from one to the next. Singer argues that the DECE system will offer consumers something better than they can get for free (illegally): more convenient access to their media. By making it easier to watch and hear the content they buy on a wide range of devices, DECE will make that content seem more valuable to consumers, he said. It also could spur innovation by online retailers and media services.

Maybe. Hollywood isn’t about to give up on DRM, and DECE’s approach is much more user-friendly than the locks used on downloadable movies today. Still, it’s hard to imagine the studios, which for years have pushed their customers to buy multiple copies of the media they own, embracing a system that enables consumers to buy a title once and play it everywhere they’d like. This is, after all, an industry that doesn’t want to give people the right to make back-up copies of their DVDs.

It’s also an open question whether consumers will consider any kind of DRM system a feature worth having. Would the DECE seal of approval make a Nokia phone more appealing than an Apple iPhone without it? Apple, which has a proprietary DRM, is notably absent from this initiative, just as it has stayed away from other efforts to make dueling DRM systems compatible. If the DECE system doesn’t work with iPods, iTunes and iPhones, won’t that make it a non-starter for millions of consumers?

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times’ Opinion Manufacturing Division.