DRM in ERM: Know Your Rights Providers

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 Sidebar: ERM Future: Pending Patents Play a Role in the Market's Development
Patents covering major functions in DRM/ERM will likely play a significant role in the development of the marketplace. As rights management software proliferates, approved patent holders will attempt to generate revenue by licensing their patents to software development companies.

ContentGuard, Inc. grew out of Xerox' PARC research facility almost a decade ago. Researchers there considered where content use was going (remember, this was before the Internet explosion) and developed a number of patents related to DRM/ERM. In 2000, ContentGuard was spun out as a separate entity and it is now owned by the powerful triumvirate of Microsoft, Time-Warner, and the French-owned Thomson. The original focus of ContentGuard was on DRM as it related to ebooks, but after the initial hype died down, its business model was revised to an ERM emphasis on protecting IP.

"We believe that interoperability between ERM vendors will become a bigger and bigger issue as the technology is deployed more widely. Our business model is to license our patented technologies," states ContentGuard's Director of Sales & Marketing, Rajan Samtani.

DigitalContainers, LLC, is positioned mostly in the business-to-consumer marketplace and owns patented symmetric key/token-based security technologies for use in DRM. These technologies support secure file and media delivery, tracking, authorization, certification, and communication of transactional data to trusted third parties across the Internet. As opposed to Apple iTunes' centralized DRM, DigitalContainers takes a decentralized approach, which applies to peer-to-peer (P2P) distribution systems like Napster and P2P collaborative software (groupware) like Groove Networks (purchased last spring by Microsoft).

DigitalContainers defines a digital container as an intelligent software package that provides an all-in-one security, management, and e-commerce system for files of any type and size as they travel over the Internet. These containers "wrap" the files in a secure digital shell that can be opened only with a "key," which can be as simple as a password, as unique as a fingerprint, or used in conjunction with a patented authorization process in which the container "talks" to remote authorization authorities. DigitalContainers has two patents, and five more are pending.

The first describes a process in which access to digital content, such as text, video, and music, is based on completion of an authorization process to unlock or gain access to the protected object. Authorization may require payment information and/or other usage information before approval is granted. This applies mostly to retail entertainment and other business-to-consumer applications where Internet users download and pay for music, videos, ebooks, and the like.

The second describes a system whereby a secure digital content file persistently reports the identification of, and provides information about, any new user that attempts to access the content. The central concept of this patent is that access to electronic content can be tracked as the content is passed from user to user, whether they send the content over the Internet, P2P networks, email, or using physical media. The tracking function is accomplished by transmitting notification information back to an Internet address that is predetermined by the original sender of the content as each successive user attempts to access the electronic content.

"It took nearly five years to get these patents approved," says DigitalContainers CEO Chip Venters, "and these patents cover a broad swath in the DRM area." He continues, "We use tokens and single keys, versus the PKI (Public Key Infrastructure) approach, which requires multiple keys and is a very expensive and lengthy process to implement."

With both DigitalContainers and ContentGuard claiming to have patents that cover much of DRM functionality, is there a fight brewing between the two companies? "Generally, patents within the same market space are complementary," says ContentGuard's Samtani. He goes on, "If each patent weren't unique, they wouldn't have been granted in the first place."

Sidebar: Standards Practice: The Role of Standards in DRM/ERM
A new standard development language for DRM/ERM software was established by ISO (International Standards Organization) earlier this year. Of course, since software development usually is a one- to three-year cycle, none of the current DRM/ERM software applications are 100% compliant at this writing.

Originally developed by the founders of ContentGuard, XrML (eXtensible Rights Markup Language) version 2.0, which is the basis for Microsoft's Rights Management Server (RMS), was submitted as an input to MPEG (Motion Picture Experts Group) in its efforts to establish an ISO standard Rights Expression Language (REL). Essentially, XrML 2.0 and the ultimate ISO MPEG-21 REL, which is the approved standard, are "cousins," sharing the same fundamental structure.

ContentGuard's Samtani observes, "We intend to earn income from licensing our patents, but the DRM/ERM market is still in its early stages. Although we do have the ISO MPEG-21 REL standard, there are still process issues to be worked out. For instance, is it the users' responsibility to determine which documents or data need to be ERM-enabled? Is it an administrator's duty? How should they work together? Also, compliance is an either/or thing. You either are compliant or you're not. You can't just establish and enforce compliance procedures for MS Office files; you have to consider other file types such as mainframe report outputs and other non-Office document types."

Martin Lambert, CTO and founder of SealedMedia, takes a different view of the ISO standard: "In practice, interoperability between E-DRM solutions is not proving a useful use case for RELs because (a) there are more competing RELs (e.g., XrML, ODRL, XACML, etc.) than viable competing E-DRM solutions, and (b) different E-DRM solutions use completely different cryptographic file formats and rights models, so being able to "speak" a common REL represents less than 1% of what is required for E-DRM interoperability."

Lambert continues, "Another significant obstacle to the adoption of XrML (and ISO MPEG-21 REL) is the claim by ContentGuard that XrML in particular, and any REL in general, are covered by ContentGuard patents. ContentGuard is now owned by Microsoft (and Time Warner and Thomson) so there is a view in the industry that XrML is a ‘poisoned' standard, encumbered by dubious Microsoft-owned patents and unknown licensing fees." He concludes, "We believe it likely that RELs like XrML are highly unlikely to be adopted outside of Microsoft products."

Bryan House, Group Marketing Manager for Collaboration Solutions at EMC/Documentum weighs in, saying, "It's clear that you have to watch Adobe and Microsoft in this space. But this is a nascent market, and we want to offer our customers choices, so we have partnerships with several vendors. SealedMedia, though, does have proven enterprise solutions that support a range of file types."

For the near term, buyers of ERM need to select solutions that meet their needs and operating environment requirements. It does not seem that ERM interoperability is going to be a reality for the next few years. But by then, the standards, market leadership, and vendor viability issues will be much more in focus. An educated guess would proffer that the involvement of Time Warner with Microsoft would tend to influence mostly the DRM-based digital entertainment market, and the ISO standard (and therefore interoperability) will gain strength. The ERM market will be less influenced by standards and interoperability and more by functionality and de facto market acceptance.

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