Should content be locked away?

What happens when you buy content, but it is locked away as a file rather than recorded on a medium that is stored on a shelf? Now that television programming is delivered to a diverse set of distribution channels, the question that keeps coming up is whether to use digital rights management (DRM) to protect revenues. Over-the-air television was easy; it was funded by advertising or from a government tax. Cable and satellite providers can use conditional access (CA) to protect subscription channels and pay-per-view. However, protecting content is more difficult when its delivered to PCs. DRM provides similar protection to CA although in a more open environment.

CA can be embedded in the proprietary platforms of the set-top box. DRM must run on commonly used computer operating systems. This leaves it wide open to attack from the illegitimate file-sharing community.

Television broadcasters and content producers have the luxury of seeing what went wrong with the music industry and have no intention of letting their revenues bleed away. Now that the viewer, rather than the channel scheduler, chooses when and where to watch programs, it is evident that the business models on linear programming supported by advertising are at risk. Not only that, but upstarts like the Web are pitching for the same advertising revenue.

In Europe, the European Commission is dabbling in these complex commercial matters, threatening to impose DRM technologies if content providers do not agree on open DRM technology. This is a difficult arena in which to play. On one side is the content rights owner, in another is the criminal wanting to infringe the rights, and sitting in the middle is the viewer wanting fair access.

The vendor of proprietary DRM is free to change the product at any time to adapt to threats. An open system may be easier to attack and more difficult to change. It is my belief that proprietary systems are likely to be more secure and thus more attractive to the studios and content owners. If politicians interfere in this complex mix of software engineering and business, it is unlikely to be a success. It should be left to the experts.

Consumers expect to keep content that they have paid for, but DRM keeps the content attached by a cybernetic umbilical to the license server. In the music world, an indication of what can happen to legitimate file downloads comes from the MSN Music service. Microsoft will shut down the license servers later this year, and the license weds the music to specific hardware. When the PC dies, so does the music; you can't transfer it to a new PC. When the public buys a CD or DVD, then it can play the content for the life of the media, hopefully 30 years or more.

Does the viewer purchase content to keep it or only to access a few times? Probably both. Some content is of the moment; some has value that warrants keeping it for future viewing. However, with vast back-catalogs available for access online, why bother storing your favorite programs at home? Subscription and pay-per-view need DRM to protect the business model. But how else can program creation be funded? Advertising works for the linear model, but product placement and sponsorship provide alternatives that can be embedded in the content.

Some see a war against DRM, but experience has shown that consumers will pay for convenience and picture quality. I hear stories of folks who have bought a counterfeit DVD only to find it was shot by a camcorder in a movie theatre; they have themselves to blame. Many broadcasters are showing signs of becoming more agile at adapting to the nonlinear world, but locking up content in DRM is not a universal panacea. Much like over the air and satellite, I expect the mix of advertising, subscription and purchase to continue as a way to fund content creation. It's just that the proportions will change, and new models for funding will emerge.

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