Searching for new ways in Digital Rights Management
Dow Jones Newswire's Austrian partner, the PTX-direkt news service, reports that scientists of the Imperial College Internet Centre in London have suggested alternatives to the classical forms of Digital Rights Management (DRM) for digital entertainment providers. The new approaches involve digital watermarks and server-based simultaneous usage control via the internet, and are designed to avoid some of the particularly cumbersome effects of current methods for users, for example expiry dates, usage counters and files with device specific licences. The new approach is to allow users to privately copy music and video files as well as play their files on various different devices, but make it unattractive to share content in ways that are not permitted, which includes the illegal sharing with a large number of users.
The Internet Centre's Thierry Rayna presented two varieties of "user-friendly" control; both involve robust individual ID codes – watermarks – which would remain intact when users copy the respective files and can withstand compression and decompression. The first approach is simply to prevent an "original" file being played back on more than one device at a time. If the control server detects that a file sample to be played back is already playing on some other device it will block the new playback request. This way, users can play back as many copies on as many devices as they like, but have to take into account that if they share a file, this file could already be playing on someone else's device when they wish to access it. It is, therefore, in the user's own best interest not to share. According to Rayna, this method has the advantage of anonymity, as only the watermark – and no personal or device specific data – is transmitted during every check.
The second approach is similar to the idea of shareware – once very popular for software distribution – combined with elements of the pay-per-use model. Here, the user elects to become a part of the distribution and also the promotion chain. The scientists envisage that the respective entertainment files or programs can initially be downloaded as well as played or run free of charge. Every time the file is used, this is logged online. After a trial phase, an algorithm that the London scientists are reportedly currently developing will determine the type and duration of use so far, and calculate a price for future use. This allows users to pay less for music they play infrequently than for music they play often. According to the UK scientists, this system allows small contributions to be made for products users would otherwise not try at all or would obtain illegally.
Both methods include the same disadvantage that also makes classical DRM measures unacceptable to many users: They require continuous internet access, which is available on devices like PCs or Smartphones like the iPhone, but not on small devices like MP3 or other mobile players. In addition, with mobile data traffic there is a cost issue. Flat rates for mobile devices are currently still the exception, and not all customers are prepared to pay extra for data transfers when playing music or videos on the go.
Those who advocate the modified DRM concepts point out that classical methods like Apple's iTunes platform impose far stronger restrictions on the legitimate users of digital contents. Protected files purchased via iTunes, for example, can only be played on Apple's iPod or the iPhone. Apple's DRM system does not support mobile devices by other manufacturers, which was criticised by the Norwegian consumer ombudsman and others.
iTunes now also offers DRM-free music by EMI, but the range is still very limited. According to a news release by cnet.uk, Apple is currently negotiating with three of the major music labels – Universal, Warner and Sony BMG – to expand its portfolio, but no decision has so far been reached. At the same time, all parties involved have been working to move on from the present DRM concept. Vendors like Amazon, MySpace Music and Napster are already selling DRM-free MP3 music. EMI and Warner have contracts with Microsoft for marketing free music via the Zune platform.