An international forum aimed at standardizing digital media and copy protection technologies is set to achieve a major milestone in its drive toward creating interoperable Digital Rights Management. This month, the International Digital Media Project (DMP)—which brings together more than 25 member companies across the digital content and device industries including Panasonic, Mitsubishi Electric Corp., Telecom Italia, and the BBC—is expected to release the industry's first DRM technology specifications for Portable Audio and Video devices (PAVs).
Hopes are high that the group's recommendations, largely focused on existing technologies, will bring more realistic content protection plans into the digital mainstream. The current approach—one that links DRM and specific playback devices from manufacturers including Apple, Microsoft, and Sony—restricts the content market along with the freedom of consumers to access content they've paid for across platforms and devices.
"If DRM is not interoperable, then 6 billion people on the earth lose their ability to exchange content that is at the basis of our society and how we communicate with one another," notes Leonardo Chiariglione, DMP president. He is determined to "knock down the walled gardens" around devices and services such as Apple's iTunes music download offer that hinder the ability of content owners and consumers to distribute content as they wish. "The DMP wants to give the people who create content the ability to distribute it and be paid for it and the people who buy it the freedom to play the content they buy on any device."
While the DMP has no official power to enforce these specifications, industry observers expect key companies and user communities to follow DMP's lead. "The industry is taking notice; companies are seeing that we are moving from a declaration of intention to an actual execution of our intention," Chiariglione says. He expects several more companies to join the organization by press time.
The content industry also recognizes that specifications are necessary to ensure that various content management schemes can work with one another and with the widest array of devices and media players. "I believe that mobile dimension is the most exciting new development for the content industry," observes Patrick Parodi, chair of the Mobile Entertainment Forum. "However, mobile content will only really take off if the consumer can purchase once and enjoy content on all personal devices. This can only be realized if DRM is interoperable between all devices."
The mobile content market, which represents a small portion of the digital content market, is set to really take off beginning this year, according to Analysys Research, a UK-based strategy and management consultancy providing information services and start-up support to the telecommunications, IT, and media sectors. Reaching only € 2.3 billion in revenues in 2003, the Western European mobile content (well behind that of Japan and Korea) would benefit most from more flexible and interoperable DRM, Analysys Research argues.
The specifications issued by DMP will be instrumental in breaking the digital media logjam and returning order to the heavily fragmented DRM landscape, observes James Ahn, CEO of InKa Networks, Inc. Ahn points out that most DRM schemes can be linked to vendors' efforts to lock consumers into their brand of hardware. "If I buy music from iTunes, I can't enjoy that music on my Samsung Yepp MP3 player," he says.
However, the progress made by the DMP to deliver actual specifications for interoperable DRM across portable audio and video devices will assure that this interoperability is a reality someday soon. "Efforts to achieve interoperable DRM will create a larger market for everyone in the industry. This will hugely benefit content creators, distributors and device makers. Most importantly, end users will accept this approach."
Eric Grab, technology architect at DivXNetworks, a consumer-focused video technology company based in the U.S., is also optimistic that agreement on some standard DRM features will move the market a significant step forward. "The DMP is making progress to help set various low level features—more aptly called tools—to help solve the daunting problem of creating digital media systems," Grab says.
DivXNetworks, a DMP member, is a staunch supporter of convergence in the digital media value chain. To date, the company's core offering, its DivX video codec, is among the most popular video compression technologies and counts more than 160 million users worldwide. Often called "the MP3 of video," the technology enables full-length films to easily fit on a CD or be delivered over broadband connections. "In many ways, this has done the deed of providing interoperable DRM to the masses," Grab says, referring to his company's ongoing program to embed media technology, including DRM, into products from a number of manufacturers such as Phillips, Sony, and JVC. Now the company wants to take this a step further and contribute relevant technology and experience to the DMP as it seeks to extend its other devices. Next on the agenda are stationary devices such as set-top boxes, according to DMP's Chiariglione.
As in the case of portable audio and video devices, the DMP will seek to deliver specification that is "stable and implementable," Chiariglione stresses. "We are building interoperable DRM platforms step by step, by addressing business cases. We don't take a broad view and say the industry has to wait until all the pieces of technology are in place. Our approach is to provide the industry with the ability to make a variety of devices today using the interoperable DRM technologies and tools."