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DRM Is Dead

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At Content & Communications World 2011 in New York City in October, I discussed content protection with a producer. He was adamant that his content was so valuable that it must be encrypted via a digital rights management (DRM) technique. It was good to have this discussion with the content owner, rather than a third party who wishes to use DRM just because some unnamed corporate content owners require it.

In this producer’s case, he wanted to ensure that the content could not be copied and used without payment.

I showed him one of the latest products that does a perfect computer screen video capture. I played an HD video from a popular subscription movie site and elected to display it full screen on my laptop, in this case via an embedded Flash player. Pressing a function key on my laptop started a live encoding session at 1920x1024 resolution, and it created a perfect H.264 video file encoded at 1Mbps. I stopped the session and played it back, and he could not tell the difference between the live stream and the just-recorded stream.

The producer correctly observed that not everyone has such a capability. Luckily, the stand we were at had a consumer HD camcorder and tripod, which I quickly aimed at my laptop display. While this showed poor lighting and screen reflections, it was not hard to see that with just a bit of fiddling and with a little audio cable, the camera can make an almost perfect copy. Basically, if there are photons and sound waves involved, you can record it. The producer was shocked. He asked, “You mean I cannot protect my content?” “No, not really,” I explained. You could put a visible watermark on your video like TV networks do, and at least you’d know where it came from. You could embed a digital signature in the video to help track any illegal copy, but I don’t think that would survive the camera or screen capture process.

DRM has a long and controversial history, but at its core, it tries to answer the question, “How do you trust someone whom you fundamentally do not trust?” Today DRM seems to be used to satisfy contractual requirements (“just cuz”), as opposed to providing any real protective value. Some DRM proponents would suggest that most viewers do not have the wherewithal to make a copy of DRM-protected content, but those view- ers are not the ones DRM seeks to address. Those who would wish to copy such content are more sophisticated and can easily overcome DRM protection anyway.

So, why doesn’t everyone make copies of online content, whether the content is DRM’d or not? The online video industry learned a valuable lesson from the Napster era. Back then, consumers were being gouged by the music industry, and there was sufficient motivation to seek alternatives, legal or not. Later, a la carte songs could be purchased for less than a dollar. For a buck, most people would just as soon do it right and enjoy the convenience of iTunes and similar systems. The same is true with online video delivery. For a reasonable monthly fee, you have instant access to large movie libraries, and there is not much motivation to make local copies (except perhaps for offline viewing).

Back to the producer. I suggested that putting his content online behind an appropriate monetization portal may be enough, as long as he does not gouge his customers on price — thereby removing the viewer’s motivation to cheat. But still, anyone who has access to the content can still record it.

At the end of the day, it seems DRM only serves to make illegal or unauthorized use of content inconvenient, and convenience has a price for both the viewer and the producer.

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