Does Digital Rights Management Go Too Far?

Saturday May 9th 2009 by David Miller
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At the Digital Hollywood conference, industry bigwigs debate strategies for protecting intellectual property.

SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- Is Digital Rights Management an overly intrusive, ineffectual set of technologies or a sound way to protect one's business -- and even a blessing in disguise for consumers? That was the question up for debate in a panel discussion at the Digital Hollywood conference here this week.

As is typical at these industry events, people in the entertainment business staunchly defended; only Consumer Electronics Association spokesperson Jason Oxman presented a dissenting view on the panel, dubbed "Piracy and Digital Rights Management: Legal, Legislative and Social Issues Surrounding DRM and Anti-Piracy Implementation."

"DRM has gotten away from the original conception of preventing piracy -- unlawful commercial distribution of content. It's gotten to a point where it's restricting users' access to content they have purchased. It's good that we're talking about the death or near-death of DRM," said Oxman, who is the trade organization's senior vice president of industry affairs.

Oxman offered the example of needing to buy one copy of a movie to watch on his TV, and another copy to watch on his iPod as evidence of unfair constraints forced on consumers by overenthusiastic DRM.

But some panelists disagreed with Oxman's notion that consumers should have the right to do whatever they want to do with purchased digital content, sans the obvious no-nos like redistributing it.

"You can say you have the right to buy a DVD and make a copy to your iPod, but that's not the agreement you made when you bought the DVD," said Albhy Galuten, VP of digital media technology strategy for Sony Corp. of America.

"We have two choices: governance of content or you get stuff free and pay for it with your taxes (like the BBC's licensing)," Galuten added. "If we're going to be a capitalist society, we have to set prices for consumers and they have a right to buy the product or not buy it."

Oxman said that he agreed that consumers should expect to pay for content, adding, "My point is that we have to find a way to offer users what they want without annoying them."

Users do seem to be irate about DRM. Companies like Apple, which dropped DRM for iTunes music downloads earlier this year, and Amazon, whose music store has offered DRM-free MP3s since September 2007, have used such changes as a selling point to attract consumers, touting the fact that DRM-free music can be played on any device. Microsoft is reportedly scaling back the DRM on Windows 7, saying users complained the authentication process and subsequent reduced functionality if the OS was deemed to be an illegal copy, was too burdensome in Vista.

Recently consumers dramatically drove down the ratings of the strategy game Spore on numerous shopping and game sites due to its aggressive DRM, and the DRM that Amazon applies to Kindle downloads is being cited in media reports as a potential problem in online bookseller's recently announced plan to pursue the textbook market -- students rely on reselling textbooks at the end of the year to recoup some of their investments in the pricey tomes. DRM on digital textbooks means that re-sales would likely be prohibited.

Next page: Restrictions are needed

Restrictions are needed

Panelist Jim Williams, senior vice president and chief technological officer of the Motion Picture Association of America, wondered whether DRM "is annoying people because they are trying to get something they didn't purchase and are trying to force a different use on it." If consumers simply abided by the restrictions put on content usage by its owners, then they wouldn't be irritated by DRM, he said.

The panelists all agreed that it is impossible to protect content and monetize it without controlling that content through some form of DRM. And if the content is not controlled, then "the next 'Crash' doesn't happen. The next 'Gandhi' doesn't' get made," said Susan Cleary, vice president and general counsel of the Independent Film and Television Alliance.

So DRM, the majority of panelists agreed, is actually a great thing for consumers.

"It's the reason why consumers have choices available to them. TV and movies are not just a commodity. The ability to distinguish one work from another work drives creativity. DRM gives consumers variety and the possibility of having a viewer experience for a couple of dollars, or if they're willing to watch some commercials they might get it for free. We can't just get rid of DRM and say we'll figure out, (the business model) later," said the MPAA's Williams.

The idea that technology has cultivated bad consumer habits was also raised.

Enablers of piracy?

"What if the people who designed TIVO had made it so you couldn't skip over commercials? Consumers would have then had the expectation that they'd have to watch them," Sony's Galuten said.

The point that consumers have never felt compelled to watch commercials even in the days before TIVO, was not voiced by any of the panelists, who went on to discuss ways of stopping wide scale unauthorized commercial distribution of copyrighted content by using tracing DVD/CD replication equipment and watermarking so that the distribution chain can be tracked.

Internet Service Providers were also mentioned as enablers of piracy.

"When they started (selling broadband), piracy was their killer app," said panelist Paul Jessop, a consultant with the Recording Industry of America. "They sold connections on the idea that you could download anything you wanted. Now it's hurting them. It's costing them a lot of money. If bandwidth is being used for piracy, the ISPs have to pay for it."

Cleary singled out Spain as an offender, saying the country provides "a safe harbor for ISPs, and the ISPs won't do anything (about illegal downloads). Spain wants to build its network, and it doesn't want to tell ISPS they have to turn off business to 40 percent of their traffic. They don't have the incentive to clamp down."

France, whose government has been working to pass a "Three Strikes" law -- get caught downloading copyrighted content illegally three times, and you lose your internet connection, was cited as an example for other countries to emulate.

"It's a good law," said Cleary.

The European Parliament disagrees, however. On Wednesday parliament members voted overwhelmingly in favor of an amendment that prevents member states from implementing three-strike laws, saying it restricts the rights and freedoms of Internet users.

"Obviously ISPs have an interest in making sure their bandwidth is properly used," said Oxman. "The only cautionary note I would sound is that we don't want to put ISPs in the business of examining what we're all downloading. We also want to make sure we don't deter consumers from buying broadband connections. It's a slippery slope. We don't want to turn ISPs into cops."

The entertainment industry is evidently downplaying the idea of persuading users through education that illegally downloading and sharing copyrighted content is bad,

"You tell consumers about the impact of piracy and they just go off to Limewire and download whatever they want anyway," said Sony's Galuten.

The panel wound down with Oxman saying that content-producing companies should "stop viewing the Internet as a threat. I think a lot of the discussion today has been describing it as a threat."

Panelists agreed -- the Internet provides big opportunities for content creators and distributors, said Cleary.

"We love the Internet," added the MPAA's Williams.

Article courtesy of InternetNews.com.

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