Stalemate on digital content?

Rights-management schemes are threatening to put customers under proprietary lock and key. And critics warn that Microsoft is gaining too much power, from multimedia to corporate memos.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
4 min read
Travis Kalanick has a problem with the emerging world of legal online music services.

As the head of peer-to-peer content distribution company Red Swoosh, he was naturally curious to try Roxio's new Napster download service when it launched last week. Trouble is, Napster uses Microsoft technology that doesn't work with his iPod, the best-selling portable music player, produced by Apple Computer.

"People don't like that," Kalanik said. "Until these services have standards, and they're compatible, and you can play whatever you have on whatever device you have, people are going to resort to the services that do give them that. And those are illicit."

Incompatible anticopying technologies known as digital rights management (DRM) are being applied to everything from music files to Microsoft Word documents, and the lack of rules that can make these schemes work together is increasingly prompting calls for a standards revolution.

The problem, critics say, is that companies can all too easily turn DRM into a powerful tool for locking customers into proprietary technologies. For example, files users purchase through Apple's iTunes music store won't work with portable music players other than the company's own iPod device.

More broadly, some worry that Microsoft's new Office suite of software, and its ability to prevent unauthorized distribution of e-mail or Word files, will lock the business world even more deeply into using Office, since other programs might not be able to read the locked files. A recent report from a panel of security experts warned against this trend, saying that using content protection to tie users to Microsoft Office and Windows could create damaging security risks.

Indeed, Microsoft's rise in a number of different copy protection arenas worries critics. They're calling for cross-industry agreements that will let multiple companies create and produce standard ways of protecting content, in much the same way that multiple companies can create Web browsers or e-mail programs that send secure communications to each other.

"Unless users can access content without all the hassle of dealing with different digital rights management systems, DRM is a nonstarter," said Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG) founder Leonardo Chiariglione, who recently created a new international group focused on content protection issues. "The alternative is a digital media stalemate, where nothing moves."

Working together
A host of traditional standards bodies already exist to handle individual pieces of this task. Chiariglione's MPEG organization is working slowly on rules for multimedia. The Open Mobile Alliance is working on rules for mobile phones. The TV-Anytime Forum is working on content protection standards for consumer storage devices such as TiVo.

Microsoft says it's working with all of these groups. Despite being a market leader in several areas, it is actively pursuing digital rights management standards, its executives say.

Rather than a specific standard for the locks themselves, standards need to focus on interoperability so that when a file goes from one device to another--say, a cell phone to a personal computer--both devices know how to read the file and protect it from unauthorized use. That kind of interoperability is Microsoft's goal in all the groups it's working with, the company says.

"There is no one silver bullet," said Andrew Moss, director of technical policy for Microsoft's Windows division. "If we want to ensure that information can flow and can be protected properly as it flows, the world needs to come up with mechanisms for trust and authentication as that information gets handed off."

But Chiariglione isn't the only one that feels traditional standards bodies aren't moving fast enough. And even Moss concedes that no standards body is looking at rights management for corporate documents, even though that might be "desirable."

As a result, Sun Microsystems has become one of the latest, largest entities to mount a cry for interoperability in digital rights management--and it's taking matters into its own hands.

Sun is looking at its experience with the Liberty Alliance, a group that formed several years ago to provide an alternative to Microsoft's Passport online identity services. Now, the company wants to create a similar cross-industry alliance to create standards ensuring that authorized data can be swapped across different companies' digital rights management tools, whether the subject is the latest "Matrix" movie or a top-secret corporate memo.

"The notion there is that you don't have to be beholden to a single vendor," said John Fowler, Sun's chief technology officer for software. "I think it is incumbent on us to get something started. It's just a matter of getting (the effort) going."

Paved with good intentions
None of these ideas is wholly new. Other companies and other organizations have long since tried and failed to create momentum behind content protection standards.

In the music realm, the Secure Digital Music Initiative, sponsored by the big record labels, collapsed under the weight of disagreements between consumer electronics companies, labels and computer makers.

Wary of Microsoft's early digital rights moves, RealNetworks tried to pull together an open-standards drive, beginning in mid-2001, but never gained serious traction.

Analysts say the ambitious cross-media efforts Sun and Chiariglione launched could well meet the same fate.

"I'm not convinced that an open DRM standard is possible across everything," IDC analyst Joshua Duhl said. "You've got a lot of constituents with a lot of agendas, and in some sense, no demand for the use of it...I think standards are coming, but they're coming in different ways in different markets."