Apple, DRM & Content Protection

January 24, 2009
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Image via CrunchBase The music industries decision to do away with DRM, which has lead to Apple’s ability to offer titles DRM free in iTunes is a great decision that will encourage people to purchase more not less of their…

Image representing Apple as depicted in CrunchBaseImage via CrunchBase

The music industries decision to do away with DRM, which has lead to Apple’s ability to offer titles DRM free in iTunes is a great decision that will encourage people to purchase more not less of their product. 

Time and time again we are seeing examples of these brute force approaches to content protection fail.  Regionally encoding DVD’s was/is a terrible idea, however largely irrelevant as most DVD players are multi region.  DRM was a long suffering headache for the digital music revolution that was doing more to hurt the sales of digital music than protect the artists.  There are still examples when people are trying to protect content using old world mentality in a new world medium, such as the BBC iPlayer which tries to restrict viewing of their published shows by geographic location (and similar services exist in the US).
To date content protection has all been at the cost of convenience, freedom and flexibly of the legitimate user.  If I am travelling to the US and see a DVD I like, why shouldn’t I be able to legally purchase it and watch it when I get home?  If I buy a song on iTunes, why shouldn’t I be able to decide to listen to it on my Blackberry or other device I happen to choose at the time?  If I watch BBC TV online, why can’t I continue to do so while in the US on business?

However content protection is a valid pursuit which isn’t just about monopolies trying to protect their turf, it is about protecting ones digital assets whether than be commercial assets or not.  The field of content protection will evolve dramatically over the next decade.  And when we get it right content protection will be something useful for all of us and something we don’t really think about on a daily basis.

Some key hurdles that we will:

  • Content protection will have to stop being a standalone fence around content and become part of the content itself.  The problem with creating barriers around content is that it only takes one person to move that content outside of those barriers, then those barriers no longer apply and the content is no longer protected.  Instead having the protection as part of the content ensures the relevant protection mechanisms are always in place.  DRM was an attempt at this but it was a method that put the needs of the user last and failed because of this.  A common standard for all forms of content will have to be agreed upon.
  • Authentication & Authorization will need to be fixed first.  Today there is no single standard for determining who you are across multiple platforms and devices.  Before content protection can work we need to ensure there is a common standard in place that allows you to be you regardless of where/how you are accessing content.  The content producers won’t own or control this, in fact no single authority will control this but a common standard will fix the authentication mess which exists in the digital world today.
  • Content protection can and will be policy based.  You can define a specific authorization list or you can define demographic attributes (such as age restrictions) which allow you to control who can access that content.  It is not just about granting content based on named users.  You can grant content based on age, relationship to you (friend, family, associate), employer etc.

So imagine if you publish a photo of your family you might choose to limit the content to only be viewed by members of your family.  It doesn’t matter who copies or re-publishes that photo because the content protection mechanism is built in and only people who are authenticated as a member of your family can view.  Maybe you publish adult material (photos, videos etc), you can assign a content protection mechanism that ensures only people 18 years or older can view the content (regardless of where it is published or redistributed).  Finally if you are a musician you can assign a content protection policy to your music which specifies that only people who have a licenses to listen to your music can do so.  Then it doesn’t matter who sells the physical bits, what format it is in, what device the music is played on.  People don’t even need to download the music they own, they could go to any jukebox web service and only see the tittles they are authorized to play.

Clearly there are numerous challenges to face until we get to this point, but until we do any content protection mechanism is just going to be a facade causing more inconvenience to authorized users than it does to unauthorized users.

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