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RIAA: DRM not dead and likely will make comeback

David Hughes of the RIAA tells conference audience that subscription services will usher in a new DRM era.

The RIAA's David Hughes sits next to former IFPI CEO Nic Garnett. To Garnett's right is the MPAA's Fritz Attaway Greg Sandoval/CNET

LOS ANGELES--News of DRM's death has been greatly exaggerated, according to an executive with the Recording Industry Association of America.

At a time when the top recording companies appear to be phasing out digital rights management (DRM), the RIAA is predicting that the highly controversial software will make a comeback.

"(Recently) I made a list of the 22 ways to sell music, and 20 of them still require DRM," said David Hughes, who heads up the RIAA's technology unit, during a panel discussion at the Digital Hollywood conference. "Any form of subscription service or limited play-per-view or advertising offer still requires DRM. So DRM is not dead."

Hughes just stated the obvious. DRM still exists; one can find it at iTunes, RealNetworks' Rhapsody, and at free-music service SpiralFrog just to name a few. But his statement was startling because the top four music labels have seemingly been warming up to unprotected music files.

Last January, when Sony BMG became the last major recording company to sell DRM-free tracks at Amazon, plenty of observers considered the technology buried. Since then, a growing number of online stores have begun offering at least some open MP3s, including, Zune's Marketplace, Amazon, as well as iTunes.

Not so fast, said Hughes, who predicted that DRM would reemerge in a big way. "I think there is going to be a shift," he told the audience. "I think there will be a movement towards subscription services, and (that) will eventually mean the return of DRM."

Hughes also said that DRM must change so that the public sees it less as a sort of policeman that locks music a way. He would prefer a mode where consumers don't notice DRM at all. "People just want music when they want it," he said. "It's about access. If they get that then they don't care about DRM."

Not everybody on the panel agreed. Rajan Samtani, director of business development at Digimarc Corp., a company that provides watermarking technology, said he worked for ContentGuard, a company that tries to help find less obtrusive ways to implement DRM.

"I think it's time to throw in the towel," Samtani said. "These kids have too many ways to get around DRM."

Fritz Attaway, executive vice president at the Motion Picture Association of America said: "We need DRM to show our customers the limits of the license they have entered into with us."