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UltraViolet: Does the DECE Finally Get DRM Right?

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When it comes to controlled access and digital rights management (DRM), the sheer number of choices for playing online video has been overwhelming. From Adobe’s Flash Access and Apple's FairPlay to Microsoft’s PlayReady and a host of other proprietary and open source solutions, DRM has often succeeded in further fragmenting an already fragmented consumer electronics landscape.

The need for DRM is apparent, at least in the eyes of the studios and premium content owners, but so is the need for content to be played on any device at any time, at least in the eyes of the consumer who is “purchasing” a piece of digital content. Is there a way to bridge the gap between the content owner’s licensing of a piece of content for playback on a single device and the consumer’s desire to play that content just about wherever and whenever he or she wants?

The answer to that question of balance is about to get a new act in the three-ring circus of premium content creation, distribution, and consumption, as proponents of a new DRM scheme prepare to walk the tightrope again in mid-2011 with an aggregated technology known as UltraViolet.

The group backing UltraViolet is known as the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE). The DECE includes some of the bigger names in content ownership and consumer electronics manufacturing, as well as retailers of both content and electronics, to create a unified DRM scheme that transcends a single DRM technology.

The intent with UltraViolet is to embrace several DRM schemes that can be played across many consumer devices, offering the consumer a choice on where to play back content that the consumer has licensed in the form of a digital media purchase agreement.

The Audacity of (Consumer) Hope

To understand where UltraViolet might succeed, we need to first look at how DRM fragmentation has negatively impacted the marketing and purchasing of premium content over the past 15 years.

The current state of flagging premium content sales has often been blamed on piracy. While it’s true that piracy is much easier in the digital realm, several studies have concluded that the consumer will attempt first to follow a tried-and-true pattern before resorting to piracy; studies show that consumers will try to play digital content on several devices, as they did with physical mediums such as cassette or VHS tapes or even CDs and DVDs.

Studies also revealed that the same is true for digital-only content such as TV shows. Akamai released a study in 2008 showing that the 24-hour window of time after an episode aired on cable or broadcast television was critical to putting content online: Within the first day after a show aired, the overwhelming majority of would-be viewers would look to legitimate sites for the content. Barring its availability on a legitimate site and—to a much lesser extent—depending on the price, the would-be viewer would then begin looking for content wherever it could be found.

Piracy, it turns out, isn’t the only factor in flagging premium content sales: Consumer frustration at not being able to play content on a device of choice is also a reason for the decline, which is tied directly back to DRM schemes that limit consumers’ choices.

“Consumers aren’t confident they’ll be able to watch content in the future on devices of their choice,” said Sony Pictures Entertainment’s chief technology officer, Mitch Singer, in an interview last year, “so they’ve stopped collecting content.”

The promise of “owning” a piece of digital content has been held out by Apple and a few other companies for years, with the idea that a piece of content “belongs” to the purchaser as long as he or she doesn’t breach the rules—such as limiting the number of viewers he or she shares the content with—and also that the purchaser has a device that will play the digital content.

While Apple has boosted content sales by offering a less restrictive DRM for its own devices, everything still must reside within the Apple ecosystem. While the jury is out on whether Apple’s product sales upswing is due, in part, to the ease with which iTunes Store-purchased content can be moved between Apple devices, there’s still only one way to move content from Apple devices to other devices: remove the DRM scheme from the content.

Want to put your purchased AAC iTunes song or movie on a non-iPod player? You’ll have to convert it first to a format that doesn’t have DRM restrictions, since the hardware tie-in still preempts easy movement from Apple devices to other devices.

Want to use your protected Windows Media Audio (WMA) files on a Mac or Linux computer? Again, you’ll have to convert to a nonprotected format.

UltraViolet proponents rightfully don’t want consumers to be forced to remove DRM from the content they’ve licensed from the content owner, for both legal and financial reasons, so the goal of UltraViolet is to make the content playable on as many consumer devices as possible.

How Long Is ‘Always and Forever’?

An uneasy uncertainty settled into the consumer electronics industry back in the early to mid-2000s, as a number of DRM schemes failed, went under, or were eclipsed by newer schemes that worked on newer devices.

Some resellers of music shifted from one DRM scheme to another, leaving a trail of content that couldn’t be played on newer devices after a few years, while others moved away from proprietary audio formats and DRM schemes and went toward standards-based, unprotected audio files based on MP3 or AAC (advanced audio coding).

As if in preparation for my own tightrope act of reporting on both the consumer and content owner implications of UltraViolet, I received an email addressing the lack of choice faced by consumers of outmoded DRM schemes. The day after I was assigned to write this article, I received an email from Walmart.com, reminding me that my single WMA audio purchase, made in 2005, was still valid in 2011.

This January 2011 message read, in part:

We hope you are enjoying your Walmart music downloads. As you may know, back in February 2008 Walmart.com converted its digital music site to a 100% MP3 music download site. This means that our entire music collection is now available in a high quality format that can easily be backed up, moved, or transferred to almost any portable device.

Although we have moved to a 100% MP3 site, Walmart.com continues to maintain support for DRM-protected WMA files purchased prior to February 2008. As always, we encourage you to back up copies of your current .wma files by burning your music to an audio CD (CD-R) using Windows Media Player 9 or greater.

DRM-protected WMA files may be authorized to play on up to 3 machines. The simplest way to authorize a new machine is to copy your music files to your new machine and play them with Windows Media Player. Playing them with Windows Media Player will walk you through the process of authorizing your new machine.

The email message was a bad reminder of an earlier era when Walmart (which is not part of the DECE) tried to ditch DRM licensing servers for those who had purchased songs from its online music store. In September 2008, Walmart was singing a different tune, one that forced users to abandon their purchases or to circumvent the DRM scheme:

We hope you are enjoying the increased music quality/bitrate and the improved usability of Walmart’s MP3 music downloads. We began offering MP3s in August 2007 and have offered only DRM-free MP3s since February 2008. As the final stage of our transition to a full DRM-free MP3 download store, Walmart will be shutting down our digital rights management system that supports protected songs and albums purchased from our site.

If you have purchased protected WMA music files from our site prior to Feb 2008, we strongly recommend that you back up your songs by burning them to a recordable audio CD. By backing up your songs, you will be able to access them from any personal computer.

Due to significant public outcry, Walmart quickly reversed its decision to kill the DRM licensing servers, announcing 4 days after its initial email that the licensing servers would continue to remain available:

Based on feedback from our customers, we have decided to maintain our digital rights management (DRM) servers for the present time. What this means to you is that our existing service continues and there is no action required on your part.

Our customer service team will continue to assist with DRM issues for protected windows media audio (WMA) files purchased from Walmart.com. We continue to recommend that you back up your songs by burning them to a recordable audio CD. By backing up your songs, you insure access to them from any personal computer at any time in the future.

Walmart no longer maintains the WMA audio file library, so it’s impossible to download another copy of the WMA purchases, although those who have purchased MP3 audio files from Walmart can continue to retrieve their purchases for the foreseeable future. Proponents of DRM would argue that Walmart’s decision to eradicate its WMA file library is justifiable, since the consumer is only purchasing a license to play content and not the content itself.

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