DRM’s Demon Days

When I first heard Demon Days, the recently released second album by virtual band Gorillaz, I marveled at its originality—for about three songs. Then I was overwhelmed by an incredible sense of déjà vu (or écouté, as the case may be). After a few spins, I realized the disc is both: completely derivative and stunningly original. Stanford Law School professor Lawrence Lessig would argue that this is just another example of our "cut and paste culture" (from his free book Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down and Control Creativity). Upside: creative and intellectual output that stands high on the shoulders of others, greater than the sum of its parts and all that. Downside: derivative drivel and outright thievery.

Most EContent readers probably remember music before sampling, but any who listened closely heard ripped riffs and reminiscent phrases. In literature classes, it is sometimes referred to as referencing—picking up a character or theme from another's work and building upon it in your own. Mike Myers has even put together a deal with DreamWorks to take existing films and alter them to include Myers and other actors and insert new plots or alternate endings in what they call "film sampling."

Cut and paste culture might be all the rage on the creative side of the entertainment business but is often an anathema to the business side. While the latter will gladly pocket Gorillaz' green, a team of lawyers probably frets over every echo of another artist's work. At this year's Entertainment Technology Alliance conference, I moderated a session called "Can Content Remain King?" in which—as usual—DRM surfaced as the highest hurdle for widespread entertainment digital content delivery.

According to panelist Alex Blum, an AOL VP, "Content is king—in a broadband world." Blum discussed the company's shift from the subscription model to that of an advertising-supported portal. He cited recent agreements with film and music studios to make movies and music videos available for download on the site, but focused on the company's plans to offer streaming advertising that "includes interactive elements and delivers CMPs twice the revenue of television advertising with—more importantly—better measurements than Nielsen ratings." He said he is personally "focused on disrupting traditional media," which is interesting since his most provocative point was a call for the music industry to embrace some sort of universal DRM. It is traditional media, after all, that has the most to lose from piracy, but its purveyors have been uncooperative in banding together to help make online music distribution a viable business model.

"What the Internet did for commerce, broadband is doing for content," according to Shahid Kahn, managing director for the media and entertainment practice at the BearingPoint consultancy. While he comes from a different perspective—having worked with major media companies for most of his career, he agreed that DRM standards are essential for any significant success in streaming content. But even before a question of how to implement DRM, he says his clients continue to struggle with what rights they actually have.

While Omar Javaid, senior director of business development for mobile powerhouse QUALCOMM MediaFLO, agreed that open DRM is probably best for the future, he feels strongly that his company's ability to deliver content securely to mobile phones is a distinct competitive advantage. MediaFLO certainly takes an innovative approach to streaming: its plan to deliver television content to cell phones doesn't use the cell network at all; it uses UHF because cellular networks are built for point-to-point communication, not one-to-many—essential for a streaming business.

Stuart Lipson, VP of content at SeaChange International, is all about the business of helping networks, studios, and other content creators and providers to distribute content via digital channels. In his contributions to the panel discussion he emphasized the need to protect the content owner and to "secure trust." He also discussed a need for measured results that go well beyond Nielsens to enable the digital advertising business. Though some attendees countered that consumers will go to great lengths these days to avoid advertising in any form, Lipson insisted that by applying digital content's "right time right place" objective to advertising, it can be done well enough to enhance the user's experience.

Most content consumers would balk at the thought that advertising will ever be held to the same standards applied to most high-value content, and it does always come down to user demands. They are the ones the entertainment industry is trying to entice to pay to play, after all. As the session's final presenter Kevin Corcoran, VP for IBM Digital Media put it, "Content is really, really important, but the customer is king." He said that IBM has thrown its weight into the open standards camp for DRM solutions, pointing out that IBM "learned this the hard way; we very much believe in open standards." He doesn't believe that traditional DRM approaches will work in the digital consumer market, however, but that cooperation and innovation must prevail.

Innovation and cooperation—never the twain shall meet in the prevailing every-man-for-himself rush to content delivery. It sounds like it's time for a DRM remix.