Scheme Hatched To Counter Digital Rights Balkanization

A scheme to counter the Balkanization of digital rights management (DRM) on the Internet was unveiled Wednesday by a standards group whose members include ARM, ContentGuard, Macrovision, Microsoft, Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT), Universal Music Group and VeriSign.

The group — called the Content Reference Forum (CRF) — has posted specifications that it asserts will create interoperability between digital content technologies and build a framework to ensure that participants adhere to the agreements.

“The vision of the CRF is for consumers to enjoy as well as redistribute content with commercial terms beneficial to all members of the value chain,” the organization said in a statement.

Pay-for-tunes services operated by Apple, MusicMatch, Napster and others are a good example of why standards are needed for online DRM, noted CRF chairman Albhy Galuten. “If you buy music on one service, it will work with certain devices and won’t work with most other devices,” Galuten told TechNewsWorld. “And it won’t work with another service.”

Drag on Market

While services like Apple’s iTunes Music Store have rapidly increased sales since their inception, Balkanization has acted as a drag on the online music industry as a whole, asserted Jarad Carleton, an IT industry analyst with Frost & Sullivan.

“This is a problem mainly when selling DRM-protected monetized content on the Internet,” he told TechNewsWorld. “Electronic content protected by one DRM solution may not be accessible by another DRM solution’s player or viewer. This is a serious issue that is holding back the rapid development of a monetized electronic content market.”

The current situation in the online music business has developed because there’s no incentive to do it another way, Galuten contended. “Businesses develop for opportunity,” he said. “If you were building an operating system and you thought you had the leverage to win the space, you wouldn’t necessarily want to interoperate with other devices.”

“We welcome all efforts to drive practical standards which make digital music even more convenient for consumers,” Napster chief technology officer William Pence told TechNewsWorld. “The additional user convenience envisioned by the Content Reference Forum may well be meaningful to consumers, depending on how this market evolves.”

Geographic Balkanization

Galuten added that online music is Balkanized across another axis: geography. In many cases, distribution rights are narrow, so a record company might have rights to distribute an artist’s music in one territory but not in another.

A universal distribution scheme must take that into account. “You need a mechanism for determining where someone is coming from, not only their rendering environment but their territorial affiliation, so you can do what is legally required under the contractual obligations between the artists and their distributors,” Galuten said.

The scheme outlined in the CRF specification works like this: Content isn’t identified by file type — MP3 music file or JPEG image, for example — but by a song title and artist tag, such as “Don’t Speak by No Doubt.” When users want that content, their platform will send information describing itself to the content provider and will receive content appropriate to that platform’s circumstances.

Dynamic DRM

“It addresses the problem of the territory and platform dynamically,” Galuten explained. “One of the difficulties with the existing DRMs is that they do not generate the offers and the content dynamically based on the existing environment. They package stuff ahead of time, and they say, ‘If you can play this, you can play it; if you can’t, you can’t.'”

Concerns that the proposed specification might be bending over backward to satisfy the concerns of content providers and distributors at the expense of consumers’ rights have been raised by the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

EFF attorney Jason Schultz explained that the CRF is proposing a DRM to cover all possible uses of digital media. To do that, it needs to write software code to consider every single circumstance that could arise. “It’s very tough to write software code that recognizes things like free speech or criticism or parody,” he told TechNewsWorld. “Unless their specification allows for those kinds of activities, it’s flawed.”

Schultz said the CRF’s goal to create a universal standard for interoperability is a good one. “But we’re not for creating a standard that leaves out free speech and fair use under the copyright laws,” he declared. “Until we can be assured that those things are protected, we don’t think any standard is good enough.”

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