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To Protect and Serve: A DRM Primer

Microsoft
As for what’s available now, Levy says you’re really looking at Microsoft. “There’s Microsoft’s Windows Media DRM platform, which is the world-leading solution; it’s the solution that the studios have vetted; it’s the solution that, when you buy a digital copy, like if you buy the Batman DVD, The Dark Knight, the file that you get on the DVD, the digital copy is managed with Windows Media DRM. Obviously a pretty well-known solution, it’s for streaming and downloads to Windows Media Player on PCs. If you’ve got a conventional offering and you’re not looking too much at mobile, if you’re looking at set-top boxes or kiosks, or appliances, that’s definitely the way to go," he says.

Microsoft’s newest iteration of their DRM technology is the PlayReady Content Access Protection technology which can be used to deliver encrypted Windows Media WMV/WMA/ASF content to PCs and Macs via the Silverlight player or fragmented MP4 content in the ISMV format from an IIS7 Smooth Streaming server and other compatible Smooth Streaming platforms.

The PlayReady technology is compatible with Intel-based Macs and Windows PCs [and] compatible with almost every browser in existence. The technologies have become almost transparent now; you almost can’t even tell that they’re in play. In fact, I don’t think most users can even tell at all that they’re consuming encrypted media. This is the technology that Netflix is using, the technology that Sky TV is using,” Levy says.

The first decision you need to make when starting with Windows Media Rights Manager or PlayReady is whether to design, develop, and deploy your own platform or use a third-party provider. The prior option means investing in technology, an investment you may not recoup, Levy warns. You’ll need to hire a system architect to plan the system, a substantial stack of hardware and software in a datacenter as well as people to maintain it. If you go with a third-party provider, you can be completely up and running for less than $1,500 and typically below $399 a month for service and support. More people go the third-party route with Windows Media Rights Manager and PlayReady, he says. Find a provider that has APIs you can integrate with your existing services, he advices, and make sure the provider has server-side encryption tools that you can use to automate your system. Levy’s company BuyDRM offers PlayReady for Windows Media via Silverlight DRM and PlayReady for ISMV via Smooth DRM.

Geographical Restrictions
When you’re adding DRM protection, you might also need to consider adding geographical restrictions. “If you’re showing licensed content, there are often restrictions at a country level—maybe you can only show a movie in the U.S. Same thing with online telecasts of sporting events, for example. You may not be able to show the content where it’s blacked out because the arena hadn’t been sold out,” says Rob Friedman, executive vice president at Digital Element.

Geographical restrictions used to be simple gateways online, which viewers could easily avoid. “What happens is, if, as people had done, [the gateway] asks a user where [he or she is] from, a user would put in a location, but users obviously get real smart in those circumstances. If they know content can’t be viewed in, say, France, they’re going to say they’re in the U.S. This means you need some kind of objective way of determining where the user is, and the most objective way is relying on the user’s IP address,” Friedman says.

“There are a few ways you can do it, but the main way is when the user goes to a site to view a stream or tries to download content, it would run a quick check on the user’s IP address in our database, and our database would tell the content owner whether that user is in an appropriate country or part of the country,” he adds. “If the user is surfing behind an anonymizing proxy, that can be flagged too, because there are not really good reasons to use an anonymizing proxy to view this content other than to try to get around geographic rights management.”

When using geographical restriction protection, the video content is stored elsewhere, but the stream incorporates APIs, which pass the viewer’s IP address to the restriction company’s server. Geographical restrictions, you’ve probably noticed in your own surfing, are becoming common.

“It seems to be getting more and more prevalent,” Friedman says. “I think originally it was hands-off where the internet was the Wild West and people felt they couldn’t apply geographic rules that are in the real world to internet content. On the internet they felt there are no boundaries, and once you put content on the internet, anyone could download it and there’s no way of verifying that. Lately, it seems like more and more countries and even areas within countries are requiring enforcement of their offline laws online. If you can’t see content in the real world, you can’t [see] it in the online world.”

The Future of DRM
DRM has proven to be a hot topic even with mainstream consumers. So before we let our experts get away, we wanted to know what changes they saw coming in 2010.

“For music, it’s gone away. For everything else, it’s not going away,” says Taylor. “There’s kind of this arm’s race, I’d describe it as constantly adapting your solution and software to overcome the holes and the ways that people try to get around it. Within the structure of how Microsoft built their DRM solution, it assumed that people would crack the keys and find ways around it. So within the architecture of how it works is the ability to continuously enhance it.”

Expect to see DRM extended to mobile devices, Taylor adds, with content portability between devices built in. Content won’t be tied to one device, but consumers will be able to enjoy their purchased content wherever they choose. Upcoming changes to PlayReady will let people move their digital assets from the computer to the TV to a portable device, providing both flexibility and content protection.

Levy’s crystal ball looks much the same: “The big [trends] are going to be more transparency, greater interoperability (both across platforms as well as devices), and greater transparency from a user perspective (users are going to notice that they’re consuming DRM-encrypted media less and less),” he says. Levy further predicted “we are going to see the Rights Management Solution and Service Provider industry working together to form a peer-based ecosystem where consumers can purchase content and rest assured that it will work across all of their devices.”

While Adobe hasn’t been a major force in DRM, Levy sees that changing with “true parity between Adobe and Microsoft’s offerings. Flash Access is a substantial product that’s going to stand up very well to PlayReady in the market. They’ll finally have comparable offerings where you’re able to make a value-based decision rather than an emotion-based decision,” he says.

That means 2010 should bring more choices, more interoperability, and greater ease for consumers.

[Thanks to Christopher Levy for his help assembling this article.]

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