DECE: The DRM Clearinghouse

Dave Zatz —  September 17, 2008 — 16 Comments

I’ve enjoyed watching the DECE (“Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem”) discussion unfold – it makes for good entertainment. A decent amount of the commentary has been the typical knee-jerk “DRM sucks” response you’d expect. And while it may be partially true that this industry alliance (Sony, Best Buy, NBC, Comcast, etc) was formed to fend off Apple, DECE has the potential of ultimately benefit all consumers. Really, can it really get any worse?

I watched the entire first season of Burn Notice via Internet streaming and downloads: Hulu, iTunes, and Amazon Unbox on TiVo. Each video locked in its respective silo. When I watched an episode on my laptop, Melissa couldn’t catch up by watching it on TiVo, Xbox, or even her own PC (with separate iTunes account). And there’s no way for me to watch the entire season again via a single screen. Or let’s say I purchase a movie on the living room PS3 or Vudu, and decide to watch it on the bedroomTiVo. Right now, I’m out of luck.

So let’s think about a commercially successful form of DRM… Ignoring for the moment it was cracked years ago, the DVD has enjoyed great success. Buy pretty much any DVD from any studio and it plays in nearly any brand of DVD player. So why not retrofit that “buy once, play anywhere” model for the cloud?

I support the studios protecting their properties, as long as they respect their customers with reasonable usage rights. Of course, the devil will be in the details. We’d most likely need network-connected devices to validate against a licensing server and capable of handling whatever codec(s) they agree upon – so we’re talking either new gear or gear that can be updated to support this model. If and when this ultimately rolls out. But I am hopeful these players do the right thing, and do it efficiently – despite imminent broadband caps, the clock is ticking. And I’m betting they’d rather improve access than see their content given away via P2P networks.

16 responses to DECE: The DRM Clearinghouse

  1. While there’s always going to be a “DRM sucks” crowd, I think it’s safe to say that most people are content with some sort of content protection — as long as it does not hinder their usage rights, like you say.

    Everyone knows that current DRM models don’t work, and they’re often ridiculously easy to bypass (burn your AACs to CD then rip; extract files from DRM shells; etc).

    But I’m skeptical a new group will do anything. Everyone says they have a solution, but in reality there will never be 100% agreement.

    Convenience is still the biggest factor, and as long as even one manufacturer is making it inconvenient for consumers, it’s not going to work.

  2. Yeah, coming to a consensus will be tough. But that’s why I’m glad Microsoft joined the consortium. Many of these guys are currently using MS DRM and MS multimedia (WMV, WMA) – perhaps they’ll be motivated to totally open it up (since Apple refuses to do much outside of Cupertino with Fairplay).

  3. I’d just like to examine the statement “commercially successful form of DRM”. Let’s think about this for a minute. Why, exactly, do DVDs continue to use DRM? DRM isn’t required for DVDs. You can author one without it. Yet, studios still use DVD DRM.

    All security countermeasures have negative side effects. This is true for information security and non-information security. You have a lock on your front door. However, if you forget your key, you are locked out of your own home. We are willing to make this tradeoff (take our negative side-effects) because we believe the benefit (keeping out casual attackers) is worth it.

    Legitimate users have iPods they want to watch movies on. They can’t do that without breaking the DRM scheme (which is trivial to do). So, some class of legitimate users is prevented from using their content in a way they want (negative side-effect).

    What is the positive effect DVD manufacturers are getting that they are willing to get this negative side-effect? This negative side-effect should reduce sales. So, the positive aspect of DRM would need to increase sales by at least that much or more. Is there really anyone out there that can’t copy a DVD today if they want to?

    I’m not saying DRM sucks. I’m saying you need to evaluate the tradeoffs you are making for it to make business sense. In the case of DVDs, I just don’t understand the tradeoff currently being made. It’s like putting a $100 lock on a wood-framed closet door you are keeping $10,000 in. It doesn’t stop or slow down a thief, but it does keep you locked out when you lose your key.

  4. If we start with the premise that DRM isn’t going away (when it comes to video), then the question becomes how is it best implemented? DRM itself isn’t the problem, poorly implemented DRM solutions are. And, of course, the DVD pre-dates devices like the iPod and “threats” like file sharing networks. So, while the solution will always be less than perfect and there will be a percent of customers inconvenienced or perhaps even screwed, the current situation can be vastly improved. That’s what I’m hoping for.

  5. Something that I have wondered about is what will determine whether DECE will be successful? If it comes down to Apple vs. DECE, will the consumer decide (with their dollars)? Will DECE shoot itself in the foot by selecting a platform specific solution (such as a Windows-only solution) which continues the segmented market that we are all cursing today?

  6. Unfortunately, I think you are correct Dave. DRM isn’t going away anytime soon for video. I would have more sympathy for DRM perhaps if there hadn’t been almost 30 years of failed DRM attempts.

    I am with you in being hopeful that this consortium could agree on one DRM format that would work everywhere. I would support that. I am highly skeptical, however, since no DRM scheme has ever been able to resist the urge to also restrict usage of material in some way that upsets its customers so much that they work hard to crack and bypass the scheme.

    My last fight with DRM was with HDMI, Samsung, Tivo, and Slingbox. I used to have my TivoHD hooked up via HDMI to my Samsung tv. I added a Slingbox. The Slingbox would receive no video if the TV was off, because the folks that developed HDMI decided to add a restriction to disable all video outputs if an HDMI handshake was not successfully completed. Tivo implemented this specification as required. Samsung, when the tv is off, still shows the cable as connected as far as Tivo is concerned. Great. A legitimate customer (me) can’t use his equipment due to DRM. I changed the connection to Component between the Tivo and the Samsung and everything works fine. Has this restriction caused anyone to not be able to copy HD content at will? No. Does it make me reconsider my next purchase? Oh yes. Definitely. If I want to use my Slingbox, HDMI devices are useless to me. I’m guessing the HDMI folks never even contemplated something like a Slingbox. This is why DRM schemes fail. They can’t resist the urge to impose “other” restrictions besides JUST content protection.

  7. My problem isn’t that these folks suddenly decided to team up and take on apple. My problem is that they are trying to pass it off as this wonderful gift to consumers. People don’t want more DRM they want convenience.

    If you look at Apple’s model (which is trying to be cloned here) it’s inherently anti-consumer. Yea on some levels it’s convenient but in the grander scheme you are still locked into a single-vendor ecosystem where they can dictate whatever terms they want.

    The only way to compete with a system like this is to have an equally big player come along and offer a similar system. So you are basically encouraging the conglomeration through something like DUCE…I mean DECE, and the development of other large, hegemonic entities which control everything from the media to the hardware it’s played on. But hey, a little DRM never hurt anyone did it?

  8. Spark, Oh I know those HDMI/HDCP limitations all too well. However, it’s not universally implemented and may not even be mandated/required. I run my TiVo HD to the Panasonic TV with HDMI and component to the Slingbox SOLO with no probs. Whereas Scientific Atlanta cable boxes shut down all analog outputs when an HDMI connection is present. And the the UK, they’ve started making set-top boxes without component (HDMI only) as some sort of means of content protection. Not good…

    John, they’re not trying to clone Apple’s model and it’s not a single vendor ecosystem. They’re creating a central licensing clearinghouse that all vendors (both content distributors and playback mechanisms) will share. At least that’s the proposal. Though I agree with your point that it’s two powerul entities if Apple doesn’t play ball. And they may not have motivation to do so, unless the studios can exert more force… strength in numbers?

    It’s way too soon to predict how this will play out. Mary Jo Foley seems to think more will be revealed at CES. Doubt they’d be ready to implement anything that soon, but perhaps we’ll have more data to debate.

  9. The big problem with DRM, or at least the biggest I see, is also the one that seems to get the least attention:

    What happens when you have a DRM scheme that requires a “phone home” scenario, and Ma Bell has disconnected the line? What I mean is, what happens if the server that authenticates the license for the content is not available? I’m not talking about unavailability due to a server outage, but one where the service no longer exists, period.

    As it turns out, this scenario has already transpired in a manner of speaking. See the following URL about the shutdown of Yahoo’s Music service (if the URL gets stripped: google boingboing yahoo music):

    http://www.boingboing.net/2008/07/24/yahoo-music-shutting.html

    The fact of the matter is that any DRM authentication that entails a remote server runs the risk of being dodo-ized. While people (Americans especially) want convenience, DRM will not be much of a concern. But whither convenience if they can no longer access their DRM secured content if it cannot be authenticated?

    Actually, it may not require a DRM authenticator to fold. Acquisition by a competitor will do it too –eventually something will change somewhere, and that will kill the authentication. Anything from server/host changes to software will do. By the way, the “well, you should update the software” rationale is not valid.

    Sometimes software updates are not possible. What does someone who cannot afford the latest hardware, and/or whose current system cannot run, Vista do when support for W2K or XP is dropped? Or who changes platforms from say Windows to Linux or MacOS (or any other kind of similar transition)?

    The consumer has a right, under fair use and personal use, to access the content he/she acquired under any condition that qualifies as legitimate in the eyes of fair/personal use. The removal of the authentication system for a DRM scheme violates the user’s rights _IF_ that results in an inability to access the content under the fair/personal use principle.

    Think about it…

  10. Mr. Zatz, got nothing but respect for you and I love reading this blog, but dang – faulty premise!

    You have completely ignored the true nature of any DRM:

    It is the assumption of guilt against the Consumer that he is, without proof, a thief!

    You may not assume I am a criminal. You not booby trap your products so you can effectively kill switch them from a remote hidden location, at an undisclosed time, rendering what I spent my money on useless, in order to make me buy the same product again.

    Obviously I could write 1,000 words on just this nasty accusation alone, but I’ll just jump to the point.

    We Consumers are an EQUAL player along with the Artist and the Media company. If anything, as a collective, we Consumers are the superiors of the media companies. Their “tone” and “intent” needs to reflect that and they must get themselves out of the dark ages with that “Its good to be the king” attitude ala Mel Brooks.

    End rant ( All apologies to ZNF readers )

  11. My premise is less about why DRM exists or even if it should exist. My premise is that DRM methods are not going away, so what sort of scenario would improve the situation for us consumers?

  12. Here’s one crappy use case for DRM.

    Suppose person A marries to person B. Both, A and B, have purchased massive amounts of video content.

    How are they supposed to manage their Amazon Unbox, iTunes and other video collections in a non-retarded way. (A retarded way would involve two tivo’s with each tied to a different account)

  13. Martin, even worse (or maybe I’m schizophrenic) – I’ve accidentally bought iTunes content under davezatz@yahoo and davezatz@mac and I can’t authenticate both on my iPhone simultaneously. And that’s when I became a patron of the DRM-free Amazon MP3 store.

    Hopefully whatever this consortium cooks up allows for offline storage of keys/licenses (re: DRM-de-DRM-DRM) and allows multiple keys/licenses or merging to address your concern. We shall see…

  14. This sounds like it could go the way of a system like Steam.
    Different entities creating content and having a common company provide the sales and validation. In the PC software world it seems that Steam is widely regarded as the “best” drm system in use.
    With Steam i can go to any PC, download & install the games i own and play without any issues. A system for media that would allow me to log in and access all the video/audio content i own would be acceptable to me.

  15. At this point, I’m DRM-free with Amazon, so I’m more concerned about video. But with that, I just want to see one marketplace for all purchaseable & streamable content. And THEN, someone will come along and bypass any nasty DRM :)

  16. Music labels couldn’t get their shit together, so DRM free is the only way. Now, video is different than music, but I don’t currently see any signs the outcome will be different.

    The iPod has 70+% of the portable player market, i.e. the market for things that play music and are sometimes used for video. I have an iPod. My wife has an iPod. I have an Apple TV. I am willing to RENT movies and TV shows in this ecosystem because of all of this, but that’s about it. I would NEVER consider that something digital with DRM on it would be something I OWN. NEVER. If there weren’t a crack available that worked really well, continuously over multiple versions.

    As others have pointed out, DVDs are still where its at for now. Digital video distribution is getting something like 0.5% of people’s entertainment dollar. And DVDs are easily ripped. Yet Sony has encombered BlueRay with enough DRM that most players won’t play the most recent BD releases without updates. And many of these players don’t have an auto-update function, and aren’t net connected. Heading fast towards the ground now… Good things these things are so cheap and boot up so fast, oh wait…

    Yes, if Microsoft could get the Zune and XBox to support this, and the PS3 did too, and it all worked together magically without issue for law abiding citizens, then I might be interested. The iPod mostly works like this, but its a pretty closed system.

    Microsoft can’t even seem to get their act together between the Zune, the XBox, and Media Center though, so I’m not sure I’m so sanguine that this’ll all work out well… In fact, I would bet large sums of money against it…

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