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Can DRM play nice?

This April, Congress began weighing in on the future of Digital Rights Management (DRM) with Reps. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, and Howard Berman, D-Calif., suggesting that Congress mandate a single standard for the DRM used in online music networks. The House Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet, and Intellectual Property is re-examining interoperability in DRM and the Section 116 license, which governs the making and distribution of physical records and digital music deliveries.

Central to this examination is Apple's FairPlay, which Apple uses for its iTunes Music Store, and Microsoft's DRM solutions, used by RealNetworks, Napster, and other online music stores. In turn, the DRM technology is tied into hardware that stops iTunes downloads from being played on Microsoft-driven digital music players and vice versa.

During a hearing with industry officials on April 7, Smith, who chairs the committee, stated, "Many of the licenses and rights in the music industry stem from compulsory licenses and exclusive contracts. Since one of these licenses, the compulsory Section 115 mechanical license, is now being updated for the digital era, the time is appropriate for the subcommittee to learn more about the impact of digital interoperability on consumers and artists."

Four industry members testified before the committee: William Pence, chief technology officer of Napster; Michael Bracy, policy director of the Future of Music Coalition; Ray Gifford, president of the Progress & Freedom Foundation; and Mark Cooper, director of research at the Consumer Federation of America. Curiously, Apple, which is at the center of this DRM storm, declined the invitation to testify. This angered Smith.

"Apple was invited to testify today, but they chose not to appear," Smith said. "Generally speaking, companies with 75 percent market share of any business, in this case, the digital download market, need to step up to the plate when it comes to testifying on policy issues that impact their industry.... Failure to do so is a mistake."

Not surprisingly, the invited speakers encouraged an industry-driven solution and noted that DRM technology is still developing. However, they did point to challenges. Pence said Apple has "chosen not to license [its] technology platform under any terms to services and manufacturers eager to offer innovative business models to consumers ... Nevertheless, I do not see government intervention as the solution, as it would stifle competition and innovation that will benefit consumers and copyright owners at a very early stage of the market's development."

Can Industry Fix DRM?

Congress may be premature in assuming that an interoperable DRM solution is obtainable, at least at this juncture. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has called DRM a failure and added that "it delivers no public value but exacts a punishing public cost. It is so harmful to the interests of developed countries that there are widespread revolts against DRM underway in the U.S. and Canada, in Europe, and in Asia."

Even thoughApple rightly can be accused of not playing well with others, it is also true that one of the reasons for its success has been its tight control of the product from online delivery to playback in the iPod. This may explain why there seems to be surprisingly little consumer concern about this issue. It seems as though people are so happy with their iPods and the iTunes music service that they don't object to the fact that they will have to buy a new digital music player if they ever want to use a new music service or that they will either have to buy their music all over again or convert it to lesser quality MP3 if they buy a new player.

Despite the tight control over the product, Apple has had its hands full trying to outwit programs such as PyMusique, which allows you to buy songs from the iTunes Music Store without any copyright protection. Another Apple DRM-breaker, the HYMM Project, states that its software "allows you to exercise your fair-use rights under copyright law. The various software provided on this Web site allows you to free your iTunes Music Store purchases (protected AAC/ .m4p) from [its] DRM restrictions with no loss of sound quality." PyMusique claims: "These songs can then be played outside of the iTunes environment, even on operating systems not supported by iTunes and on hardware not supported by Apple."

DMP to the Rescue?

Although the focus of this inquiry was triggered by Apple and Microsoft, the position that Congress ultimately takes will reflect its view on DRM in general. Even if Congress decides to buy the argument that DRM is too immature to standardize, it seems likely that they will expect that interoperability will eventually come to pass or that they will take up the matter again.

But can industry really lead itself out of the DRM mess? Hopes are high that the less-than-2-year-old international Digital Media Project (DMP) may provide an alternative direction. The DMP is a nonprofit organization; its mission is to promote continuing successful development, deployment, and use of digital media that respect the rights of creators and rightsholders to exploit their works, the wish of end users to fully enjoy the benefits of digital media, and the interests of various value-chain players to provide products and services, according to the principles laid down in the Digital Media Manifesto.

"If DRM is not interoperable, then 6 billion people on the Earth lose their ability to exchange content that is at the basis of our society and how we communicate with one another," said Leonardo Chiariglione, DMP president. He is determined to "knock down the walled gardens" around devices and services (such as Apple's iTunes music downloading offer) that hinder the ability of content owners and consumers to distribute content as they wish. "The DMP wants to give the people who create content the ability to distribute it and be paid for it, and the people who buy it the freedom to play the content they buy on any device."

However, while the DMP has 24 industry members, including Mitsubishi and the BBC, it is noteworthy for which organizations are not members--namely, Apple, Microsoft, and Sony.

Robin Peek is associate professor at Simmons College's Graduate School of Library and Information Science. Her e-mail address is
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Title Annotation:Focus on Publishing; Digital Rights Management
Author:Peek, Robin
Publication:Information Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2005
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