Digital rights

Salvador Aragón. IMRC Research Fellow. ITS Professor, Instituto de Empresa

26 July 2004

Digitization has made all types of bit-convertible content expensive to produce but cheap to copy and distribute. Millions of songs and films circulating over the Internet are examples of what has been called content digitization.

This enormous copy and distribution capacity is seriously endangering the revenues of content generators and distributors. Failure of traditional copyright systems has generated a new approach, under the name of Digital Rights Management (DRM).

What is DRM?

DRM is a blanket term for a wide variety of systems designed to limit use and enjoyment of digital contents, to safeguard copyright owner interests. DRM technologies can control access to an archive (number of uses or their duration), its modification, exchange, copy or printing.

This group of technologies can be present in the operating system (as in Microsoft Windows), in a program such as Adobe’s eBook Reader, or in hardware, such as Intel’s Personal Audio Placer.

However, the real nucleus of DRM is not technological, but located in the rights model concept. A rights model is a schematic that specifies rights associated with content that users can obtain in exchange for registration, payment or permission to trace and follow such content.

These rights are normally grouped in three categories: render rights associated with actions such as printing, displaying or listening to content; transport rights linked to the copy, transfer or hire of content; or rights over byproducts that are exercised in such actions as extraction, edition or incorporation.

How it works

DRM systems are built around two approaches that can be combined: containment and marking. In containment, content is encrypted in a pod so that it is only accessible to authorized users. Marking depends on fixing some type of label or watermark which, by way of a signal, indicates to the read device that the content is protected.

DRM solutions guarantee all rights assigned to the copyright owner, preventing fraudulent practices. This means recuperation of legal and economic security, which had been lost in the changeover from physical to digital supports.

However, DRM systems can represent a serious threat to consumer privacy, development of free software and the use of content protected by copyright. Of particular concern is privacy. Many DRM technologies require users to reveal their identity to access the protected content.

From this point of view, DRM may be a handicap to the anonymous consumption of content, associating identification with purchase. This limitation does not currently exist, since we can all buy books or DVDs without having to identify ourselves.

Moreover, DRM can be used to record customer preferences or limit their access to certain types of information. This can be done by allocating an identifier to the content or to the reproduction software and linking it to personal information. For example, an anonymous global unique identifier (GUID) is embedded in Microsoft’s Windows Media Player, allowing users to be tracked. The real danger here is that copyright protection may act as an excuse for preparing user-consumption profiles.

Other problems arise in the technological sphere. Certain DRM systems are linked to a specific platform or operating system, preventing their use in multiple devices. In a worst-case scenario, they can cause more serious problems, such as forcing the restart of a PC, as has occurred with some CDs with anti-copy systems.

Unavoidable collateral damage occurs with free software. By definition, the code associated with DMR systems is proprietary and private, legally preventing development of reverse engineering activities in certain countries, such as the United States. From this point of view, DRM may hinder development of free software or put a brake on adopting existing DRM proposals.

DRM development

In spite of their utility in guaranteeing copyright, development of DRM systems is very slow. Customers are reluctant to use them, particularly when required to identify themselves. Most content creators and distributors lack the technological architecture to handle these rights internally, an essential condition for their subsequent distribution. And finally, there is no clear industry standard, meaning interoperability among different commercial proposals is unworkable, which reduces their utility and attraction.

However, some efforts may accelerate their adoption. The launching by Microsoft of its Windows Media DRM 9 Series in January 2003 is one example of industry interest.

Development of DMR systems may involve a radical change in the revenue models of the entire media sector. Some analysts see a road leading to pay-per-use schemes. This is a particularly attractive prospect not only for creators, but also for digital carriers.


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