Experts: Vendors need to reach DRM consensus

DRM issue will get more complicated as digital downloads move beyond music to TV and films

It's time for a DRM showdown, according to experts and industry executives. The debate over digital rights management (DRM) is as contentious today as it was five years ago. But industry experts on a panel at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) said Monday there will have to be some industry consensus soon over digital content protection as the purchase of digital multimedia files become more pervasive among the average consumer.

Pundits on various sides of the debate weighed in on where the future of DRM is headed, agreeing that the issue that has plagued music downloads will get even more complicated now that digital downloads have moved beyond music to television and films, both of which have their own set of complexities.

The two companies setting the tone for DRM are those who have been most successful at selling and marketing multimedia digital content--Microsoft Corp. and Apple Computer Inc. The latter's iPod reigns as the most popular digital music player, and critics have slammed Apple for its take on DRM -- which keeps consumers from playing files purchased through its iTunes service on the music player of their choice.

The company may have to revise that policy if it wants to be successful in the digital home, where it will likely have to interact with Microsoft-compatible consumer products such as the Xbox 360 game console, IPTV services, and Windows Media Center PCs, said Jim Ramo, chief executive officer of movie download service Movielink.

"A key test of DRM will be the interoperability that we're going to see as we get to the television set," he said. "It will be interesting to see what Apple does having to deal with multi-vendor living rooms out there."

However, Microsoft has taken the same tack with its own recent entry into the music player space, the Zune device and Zune Marketplace online service. Although Microsoft's Windows Media DRM format allows files to be played on various third-party devices that license the format through a program called Plays for Sure, any files purchased through the Zune Marketplace can only play on the Zune.

Ashwin Navin, president and co-founder of BitTorrent, called iTunes' DRM policy "a time bomb waiting to happen," and said the same may be true for Microsoft's policy with Zune if the device becomes more popular.

"The lock-in you get from iTunes [or Zune] is great when you love the device you got from either one of those vendors," he said. "But if you don't, the amount you've invested [in purchasing media files] is worthless."

This will inspire more people to share and download files illegally than to purchase it legitimately from those vendors, Navin said.

Television and video content may have a smoother transition to DRM-protected digital files because their industries have found ways to protect the redistribution of content without being offensive to their customers, said David Leibowitz, managing partner of CH Potomac, a strategy and consulting firm for the entertainment, media and technology industries.

DRM for music files, however, continues to be a sore spot, mainly because the music format for many years was open, the compact disc, that could be easily copied, said Leibowitz, who used to be the general counsel for the Recording Industry Association in the U.S.

That is why music enthusiasts have had such difficulty accepting DRM on music files, said Don Whiteside, vice president of corporate technology group and director, technical policy and standards for Intel Corp.

"In the music industry, this was a unique environment where the global product which was out there was an unprotected media format," he said. "After 20 years of unprotected media format free to be replicated and shared, introducing rights management technology into that market is proving to be extremely difficult."

Panelists proposed that at some point, Apple and Microsoft may have to shake hands over DRM and allow their devices to interoperate. But it's not something the two can do without the blessing of content providers, who are ultimately steering DRM's direction, said Blake Krikorian, chief executive officer of Sling Media Inc.

"Part of the responsibility of content holders when they’re negotiation with companies like Apple [is] to focus them to be more open," he said.

In an interview with the IDG News Service at CES Sunday, Robbie Bach, president of Microsoft's Entertainment and Devices Division, said Microsoft is "talking to everybody," including Apple, about a better way to approach DRM. But he, like Monday's panelists, said it's ultimately the content providers that need to bridge the gap.

"The real challenge there is it’s really not my problem to solve," Bach said. "We’re a participant, but ultimately it’s the content guys who drive the policies and approaches that happen. But we’ll continue to work with them, and I think you’ll see some advances there that make DRM better."

This article contains corrected information since its original release on January 9.

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