Thursday, March 26, 2009

Digital Rights Management, Where is the Big Question

I originally wrote this entry on September 7, 2004, and published it on


Rights Management (DRM) is one of the big technology questions web engineers have to deal with today. [For some introductory material, see this Australian Government guide to DRM. Also, ACM has held some workshops on DRM.]

In my view, a workable DRM system should allow some reasonable amount of content sharing. [See my notes on content sharing: To Share or Not to Share, That's the Question and To Share or Not to Share (II).]

Digital content distribution services continue to grow.

RealNetworks, for example, reports that its content business has grown more than 50% (at $99 million) while its enterprise software business has fallen by 14% (at $26 million). This shift in revenues goes back to 2000, the WSJ reports.

Many companies see their content services as a cash cow they need to protect at any cost. They are developing propriety systems that could be perceived as closed off to other content distribution systems. On the other hand, some may argue that distribution systems need to be protected to ensure their healthy evolution.

Looking to bridge that gap, RealNetworks recently introduced Harmony, a technology that lets consumers purchase songs on its RealPlayer Music Store site and transfer them to iPods or dozens of other players. Apple has threatened to sue RealNetworks and alter its technology to block such transfers.

(Marcelo Prince, The WSJ, Sept. 1, 2004.)

Is it in the interest of content owners for there to exist incompatible systems of content distribution and digital rights management?

This is a hard question to answer. On the one hand, more incompatibiltiy means greater barriers to wanton content sharing. On the other hand, more incompatibility may mean greater reluctance to join the digital music market as a buyer.

Finally, as I've said earlier, the most important question to ask in designing a DRM system, besides those very important questions related to limited-term copyright issues, is whether the system will allow some reasonable amount of content sharing.

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