October 29, 2008
The DRM Divide: DECE and Wal-Mart

The C3 team has been looking closely at how media spread in our current digital landscape, so it's only fitting to examine mechanisms that prohibit media from spreading, namely digital rights management (DRM). Tech blogs have been buzzing in the past month about the announcement of the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE), an organization of content, hardware, and software providers who have promised to unveil a universal digital rights management system at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. Reuters reports that the DECE consortium is comprised of NBC Universal, Fox, Warner Brothers, Sony, Paramount Pictures, Microsoft, Philips, Toshiba, Cisco, Best Buy, Comcast and Verisign. Apple and Disney are notably missing, but that's most likely because DECE wants a piece of iTunes' mammoth market share.

This "ecosystem" would allow people to watch video from any DECE producer on any DECE device. For example, consumers will ostensibly be able to transfer NBC Universal TV shows from a Comcast Toshiba DVR to a Microsoft Zune. The proposed model would also allow users to keep purchases in a cloud-based "digital rights locker" and make unlimited disc copies of any media they buy. DECE seems to make sharing and inter-operability easier than with Apple's iTunes, which allows DRM-protected media to be used on only five unique devices.

But the kinds of sharing DECE allows are not exactly productive for creating spreadable media. In the end, DECE still relies on DRM and consequently (probably) still prohibits some valuable opportunities for consumer engagement. Though no announcements have been made, it stands to reason that this DRM will function like any other DRM: it will bar user-generated appropriations of content and it will prohibit sharing protected content in social networks. Of course, DRM can usually be broken, but that kind of piracy is exactly what DECE is trying to prevent.

Further, consumers are growing increasingly wary of the sustainability of DRM models--and for good reason. As of October 9th, Wal-Mart's online music store went completely DRM-free. Consumers who purchased DRM content from the retail giant (and did not back it up) will only be able to access that content from the originally authorized computer. They won't be able to transfer it to other devices, load it onto a new computer, or re-access it in the event of a system crash. As Cory Doctorow pointed out on Boing Boing "Boy, the entertainment industry sure makes a good case for ripping them off, huh? Buy your media and risk having it confiscated by a DRM-server shutdown. Take it for free and keep it forever." Echoing Doctorow's opinion, this anti-DRM xkcd web comic has been spreading through my social networks over the past few weeks. This comic makes a valid point: DRM isn't keeping up with the rapid pace of technological change, so downloading unprotected content (pirated or otherwise) is the only way to ensure that media you acquire will remain yours.

With these negative sentiments surrounding DRM, will DECE succeed in convincing consumers to buy in to its system? Those behind DECE certainly seem to think so. Retuters quotes Sony CTO Michael Singer on the virtues of DECE's plan: "When we start to bundle these digital rights together, we believe we can actually develop and deliver a product to the consumer that's better than free." Singer's comment exemplifies a recurring problem with the rationale behind DRM. Sure, consumers may be willing to spend money on media that plays well across all their hardware, but proponents of DECE fail to recognize that DRM-free content can be invaluable to producers looking to engage audiences.



I think DRM is going to be very important in online media going forward. I think we need a solution to all these copy right problems and that way we can use our resources to increase technology, not decrease it.