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UltraViolet: Does the DECE Finally Get DRM Right?

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Walmart may argue on the same side of the debate as DRM proponents, but on slightly different grounds. Its likely reasoning is that the purchaser of an actual CD isn’t able to return to a Walmart store years later for a replacement CD if the physical disc is damaged. While that is certainly true, and DRM-based digital content is only just a “license to play” until such a license

is revoked, there’s another balancing act that Walmart faces when it allows actual purchases of non-DRM-based MP3 files that will only “break” when MP3 playback ceases in a decade or more.

Who’s In, Who’s Out?

The “at any time in the future” recommendation from Walmart when it advocates circumventing the DRM scheme—which it continued to maintain in the January 2011 email—may be one of the reasons that Walmart is not on the list of retailers supporting UltraViolet. Having been burned once by the need to maintain legacy DRM licensing servers and having to explain to customers that they don’t really own the content, Walmart will apparently maintain a DRM-free service for the foreseeable future, including through the delivery of content to VUDU boxes.

In addition to Walmart, another missing player is Apple. The combined sales of Apple and Walmart account for a little more than 40% of all music sales in the U.S. Apple’s CEO, Steve Jobs, is also a major shareholder in The Walt Disney Studios, which has declined to join the DECE’s push for UltraViolet.

On the other hand, DECE members such as Amazon.com also sell DRM-free MP3 music, meaning that an interesting test between DRM and non-DRM content will be set in motion at Amazon, the third-largest seller of CDs and digital formats in the U.S. market.

Another retail proponent of UltraViolet is Best Buy, which offers premium content sales of digital and physical mediums. Best Buy also sells consumer electronics gear from Motorola, Nokia, Panasonic, and Samsung—all DECE members—as well as its own group of consumer electronics under the Insignia brand.

Adobe, Cisco, Microsoft, and many other technology companies are also part of the UltraViolet push, to varying degrees. A full list of DECE members can be found at www.uvvu.com/ alliance-members.php.

New Electronics Sales

Given the number of consumer electronics manufacturers engaged in the UltraViolet push, it’s quite possible the premise of playing licensed content on (almost) any (newer) consumer electronics device may come to fruition.

What will UltraViolet mean to consumers in terms of electronics they already own? At this point, there’s little information available about existing consumer electronics, so it’s safe to assume that—for hardware-based players and televisions—electronics purchased after the mid-2011 launch of UltraViolet will be compatible. It’s less certain that software-based electronics, such as set-top boxes and smartphones, will be allowed to play UltraViolet-protected content via a firmware or software upgrade, so keep your eyes open when considering consumer electronics purchases over the next few months.

UltraViolet products will certainly be ready for the 2011 holiday shopping season, which several of the consumer electronics manufacturers will look forward to for increased sales.

Yet, there’s also the unknown factor of consumers experiencing device purchasing fatigue. Many consumers only purchased Blu-ray players in the 2010 holiday season and probably expect the device to function at least as long as their DVD players did, which averaged about 5 years.

Competing Aggregation Attempts

UltraViolet is not the only game in town, thanks to Apple’s continued use of FairPlay, but there also will not likely be a duopoly in DRM for consumer electronics anytime soon, in no small part due to other attempts to aggregate DRM schemes.

One company that is looking to aggregate various schemes is Verimatrix and its MultiRights DRM Interoperability effort. Verimatrix sells a Video Content Authority System (VCAS) that enables rights across multiple types of devices, including the Open IPTV Forum’s (OIPF) Marlin DRM scheme.

“Our intent is to enable transparent rights management across a range of off-the-shelf devices for streamlined multi-network and multi-device operations,” a company press release from late 2009 read. The press release also announced inclusion of Marlin into Verimatrix’s overall rights management strategy.

Yet, just a few months later, when the launch timeline for UltraViolet’s 6-year effort to bring unified DRM to market was finally announced, Verimatrix found itself questioning whether it had made the right choice.

“One decision the DECE has made, which we feel is critical to the success of UltraViolet, is the DRM schemes it has chosen to support,” wrote Verimatrix’s Steve Christian. “To be sure, there are three proprietary DRM technologies on the list—Microsoft’s PlayReady, Adobe Access, and Widevine’s unnamed offering. But they’ve also approved Marlin and OMA as open, non-proprietary DRM standards. In fact, we see the decision to support multiple standards closely mirrors our MultiRights approach.”

Verimatrix mediates different DRM schemes on multiple devices “through a single set of subscriber entitlements interfaces and Web services APIs” that allow or deny playback on particular devices. The company has worked with the OIPF and also telecom supplier Ericsson, which has an IPTV ecosystem that is in use around the world.

This choosing of an open source DRM scheme by Verimatrix is mirrored in the recent YouView (formerly Project Canvas) decision to stick with Marlin as a sole DRM scheme. It is uncertain, as of this writing, whether YouView will make good on its promise to use multiple DRM schemes, whether through UltraViolet or another approach. According to a report from late 2010, confirmed at the Streaming Media Europe 2010 keynote of then-YouView CTO Anthony Rose, the decision was made to adopt a single DRM scheme for its initial go-to-market strategy.

“(YouView) has been forced to make some technology compromises for its Internet TV delivery platform to be ready for launch, as hoped, early in 2011, notably by delaying support for multiple DRMs,” wrote Philip Hunter at Videonet on the topic of one versus multiple DRM schemes. “Instead, (YouView) has decided to launch with just one DRM, from the Marlin Development Community (MDC), which was set up in 2005 by four consumer electronics companies—Panasonic, Philips, Samsung and Sony.” Since Hunter’s article, YouView announced that it won’t launch until 2012.

If Marlin sounds like a familiar scheme, it’s because the same four companies are also involved in UltraViolet.

The choice of DRM schemes remains one of the bigger uncertainties of the YouView launch, as it’s uncertain whether the BBC Trust’s desire for openness and universal access—met in Marlin—will coincide with premium content owners’ desire for a “sufficiently secure” DRM scheme. It appears, though, that the choice of Marlin as one of the five DRM schemes that will sit under the UltraViolet umbrella is a positive sign for the DECE, Verimatrix, YouView, and others that are concerned about finding the right mix of DRM that balances content owner and consumer needs against a desire for an open source solution.

“Our strong support of the Marlin standard as a key component of this architecture is one key proof-of-concept for our MultiRights approach,” wrote Verimatrix’s Christian, noting that YouView also supports Marlin. He added the rhetorical question: “Has Verimatrix chosen to support the most promising technology in the UltraViolet boat or are proprietary DRM schemes likely to leave these new promising initiatives stranded in port?”

Lest we settle for just a few proposals around the whole DRM scheme, there is one more group that has come to the table: the MPEG Industry Forum (MPEGIF). In early February 2011, MPEGIF announced it had completed

“the requirements phase of its initiative to standardize the API between Key Management Systems and multimedia online content processing systems that provide scrambling to ensure secure content delivery.”

This new group includes a number of companies that aren’t part of the DECE, including AmberFin, Azuki Systems, BuyDRM, Envivio, Harmonic, Inlet Technologies, Irdeto, Latens, Media Excel, Nagravision, RGB Networks, Schneider Electric, and Wowza Media Systems. [Editor's note: Since this article was written, we learned that Irdeto has been part of DECE since January 2010.]

“Today, DRM/CA vendors and transcoding vendors need to bilaterally negotiate each and every key exchange API,” said MPEGIF working group chair Yuval Fisher, noting that the current solution “is a very inefficient utilization of resources and slows time to market. The keen involvement of many industry players in developing the first phase of this work testifies to the clear commercial benefits such a standard API will provide.”

A draft version of the MPEGIF standard is being targeted for limited publication and review at IBC 2011 in September, with additional collaboration being explored with the Video Convergence Forum (VCF), a group working on interoperability standards for online delivery providers.

“Standardization of the technological interaction between different solution providers in online content delivery is essential to ensure market growth,” said David Price, a vice president at MPEGIF.

Which is what UltraViolet is supposed to do when it launches in mid-2011, although some would argue it will work best for downloads and physical mediums, but not so well for streaming delivery. Still, this hasn’t stopped companies from pushing forward with plans to build out UltraViolet capabilities for online delivery.

“We’re building an entertainment distribution network that delivers secured media (music, movies, and games) from the cloud,” wrote Gregg Sullivan, Savtira’s chief executive officer. “Our EDN platform supports UltraViolet—a new content security solution developed by Sony, Adobe, Cisco, HP, and Microsoft, with the support of more than 60 media companies—and we have partnered with Neustar to build the middleware platform specifically for UltraViolet.”

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