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Digital Rights Management Takes Center Stage

In the last ten days, several events have taken place that may have the effect, intended or otherwise, to put the acronym DRM on the lips of the average consumer. DRM, or digital rights management, is the umbrella name for proprietary security algorithms used by content owners to manage how their content is used by consumers.

The first event was the launch of Vista, Microsoft’s newest operating system. Microsoft launched the successor to Windows XP in a hail of publicity, not all of it complementary. While Windows XP was available in two flavors at its initial launch, Home and Professional, Vista is available in four flavors: Home Basic, Business, Home Premium, and Ultimate. Those users who plan to use the highly touted interface called Aero won’t be able to do so in Home Basic, nor will they be able to create high-definition movies or even burn DVDs with the iDVD-like software package called Windows DVD Maker.

The bigger issue, though, is the limitation of video content playback, especially high-definition content, due to Microsoft’s decision to implement (and patent) a component-level DRM scheme. In essence, rather than making the PC as a whole function under a single DRM scheme, the company has decided that it will require DRM implementations at the video card level, the sound card level, and so on. Microsoft’s approach is intended to deter those who might try to copy high-definition content via a two-step process: first, containing DRM hacks to a particular sound or video card rather than to the total operating system; second, locking out a large number of older machines whose horsepower is limited enough that the DRM component-level implementation would render the sound or video card unusable due to the significant additional processing power required to decrypt content.

The implications of the shortcomings of this model have been documented in recent weeks, including a significant assessment by a computer science professor in New Zealand who played the model out to its logical conclusion, noting that the processing power required might render the average machine significantly slower while also causing a potential problem if a widely-used video card’s DRM scheme were hacked and the card was subsequently blacklisted so that no user of that particular card could use it to view DRM protected content. The most visible effect of Microsoft’s decision, however, was apparent in the inability of a particularly popular digital media player, Apple’s iPod, to play content purchased on the iTunes Music Store for Vista users. Apple went so far—in what some call a marketing ploy—to request that its 90 million iPod users wait to upgrade to Vista until the issue was resolved.

A second, less-publicized event happened in Maine, but its implications will drive the DRM issue to the forefront in many music lovers’minds. An Augusta, Maine, man was sued by the RIAA and its affiliates for downloading music. While the news is full of such lawsuits, which have impacted approximately 18,000 people and become a cultural touchstone to those who point out the RIAA has sued those who are dead, don’t own computers, and are too young to download, the Augusta lawsuit is the first known to be filed against someone who downloaded a small number of songs. In this instance, Maine native Scott Hinds, 23, is accused of downloading 5 songs.

"Every single person has done this," said Hinds, stating the obvious. "Why choose me?"

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