A call for open standards in digital rights management

Digital rights management (DRM) is a big issue right now. Content creators have a natural desire to protect their intellectual property and consumers want easy access to music, video, and other online content.

The most popular portable media player is the Apple iPod, by far the most successful digital music device to date. Although an iPod can play ordinary MP3 files, its success is closely linked to iTunes’ ease of use. iTunes is a closed system built around an online store with (mostly) DRM-protected tracks using a system called FairPlay that is only compatible with the iTunes player or with an iPod.

Another option is to use a device that carries the PlaysForSure logo. These devices use a different DRM scheme – Windows Media – this time backed by Microsoft and its partners. Somewhat bizarrely, Microsoft has also launched its own Zune player using another version of Windows Media DRM – one that’s incompatible with PlaysForSure.

There is a third way to access digital media – users can download or otherwise obtain DRM-free tracks and play them on any player that supports their chosen file format. To many, that sounds chaotic. Letting people download content without the protection of DRM! Surely piracy will rule and the copyright holders will lose revenue.

But will they? Home taping has been commonplace for years but there was always a quality issue. Once the development of digital music technologies allowed perfect copies to be made at home the record companies hid behind non-standard copy prevention schemes (culminating in the Sony rootkit fiasco) and DRM-protected online music. Now video content creators are following suit, with the BBC and Channel 4 both releasing DRM-protected content that will only play on some Windows PCs. At least the BBC does eventually plan to release a system that is compatible with Windows Vista and Macintosh computers but for now, the iPlayer and 4 on Demand are for Windows XP users only.

It needn’t be this way as incompatible DRM schemes restrict consumer choice and are totally unnecessary. Independent artists have already proved the model can work by releasing tracks without DRM. And after the Apple CEO, Steve Jobs, published his Thoughts on Music article in February 2006, EMI made its catalogue available, DRM-free, via iTunes, for a 25% premium.

I suspect that the rest of the major record companies are waiting to see what happens to EMI’s sales and whether there is a rise in piracy of EMI tracks; which in my opinion is unlikely. The record companies want to see a return to the 1990s boom in CD sales but that was an artificial phenomenon as music lovers re-purchased their favourite analogue (LP) records in a digital (Compact Disc) format. The way to increase music sales now is to remove the barriers online content purchase.

  • The first of these is cost. Most people seem happy to pay under a pound for a track but expect album prices to be lower (matching the CDs that can be bought in supermarkets and elsewhere for around £9). Interestingly though, there is anecdotal evidence that if the price of a download was reduced and set at around $0.25 (instead of the current $0.99), then people would actually download more songs and the record companies would make more money.
  • Another barrier to sales is ease of use and portability. If I buy a CD (still the benchmark for music sales today), then I only buy it once regardless of the brand of player that I use. Similarly, if I buy digital music or video from one store why should I have to buy it again if I change to another system?

One of the reasons that iTunes is so popular is that it’s very easy to use – the purchase process is streamlined and the synchronisation is seamless. It also locks consumers into one platform and restricts choice. Microsoft’s DRM schemes do the same. And obtaining pirated content on the Internet requires a level of technical knowledge not possessed by many.

If an open standard for DRM could be created, compatible with both FairPlay and Windows Media (PlaysForSure and Zune), it would allow content owners to retain control over their intellectual property without restricting consumer choice.

[This post originally appeared on the Seriosoft blog, under the pseudonym Mark James.]

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