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Choosing a DRM Strategy
While no digital rights management solution is 100% effective in deterring piracy, the right approach can help you maximize profits while minimizing unauthorized use.
Tues., July 25, 2006, by Tim Siglin

DRM—digital rights management—is an acronym with a lot of baggage. Ask almost anyone who has an inkling of DRM and its more well-known legislative sister, the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA), and you’ll likely get one of two replies: Information needs to be free or information needs to be protected. Both sides are equally earnest.

The case for free and unfettered access, according to its proponents, stems from two primary issues–a feeling that the media conglomerates are trying to circumvent fair use laws and that greed is overpowering common sense.

The case for protection, so the industry reasoning goes, is to keep content distribution in the hands of the owners of the original content, and that consumers should pay for every medium they choose to view content in–much like consumers who purchased VHS copies of movies were then required to purchase the same content again to view on a DVD player. The mental picture of piracy that comes to mind in the media industry is that of a well-equipped DVD pirate copying DVDs by the thousands, not a grandmother who received a new media-rich computer for Christmas trying to figure out how to watch her movies on her computer without having to load a new DVD every time.

The logic behind both arguments is based on extreme cases, but reality is somewhere closer to the outcome of the handgun debate of a few years back. In that debate, rather than abolishing handguns completely, which could have created a significant Constitutional issues with the Second Amendment, a "cooling down period" was established that required someone who wanted to legitimately buy a handgun to go through a federal background check system and wait for a period of time to purchase the gun. Problem is, the new law doesn’t stop anyone who wanted to purchase a handgun illegally from purchasing one; it just makes purchasing the handgun a little more difficult for the average consumer. Translated to the DCMA/DRM debate, DRM schemes don’t make it impossible to copy and distribute content, they just make it more difficult for the average consumer to listen to or view content on multiple devices that they own. The criminals can "pick up a handgun" in any side alley of the internet, as someone is always working on a "solution" to the latest copy protection "problem." The DCMA succeeded in making digital copying illegal, to an almost absurd degree, but hasn’t hindered illegal copying itself.

DRM, then, isn’t at its core capable of protecting content in every situation where it is delivered via the internet. In fact, any company claiming to do so would be immediately suspect, as even established DRM schemes have to be routinely upgraded to meet hacker or piracy software advances. Even the most basic analog systems, such as computer sound cards, can foil an audio DRM system, as a brief Google search will reveal.

At best, DRM puts a speed bump in front of those who are dead-set on copying content for illegal purposes. The DVD pirate is still able to circumvent copy protection, but at least is really frustrated having to do so because it takes longer to crack the code.

So if DRM copy protection technology is only useful for slowing down content piracy, but not completely eliminating it, are there working technology and business models that create a balance between protection and fair use?

The answer is yes. While each of them have benefits and drawbacks, there are three primary DRM approaches that strike a balance in today’s mostly-wired universe: conditional access/pay-per-view, subscription, and watermarking.

Conditional Access
Using the speed bump model to their advantage, several DRM companies have educated the market to an old model of business: conditional access or the "window approach."

The company most well-known for applying this old approach to new media, Entriq, is a wholly owned subsidiary of a company that started out as a pay TV provider in South Africa in the mid 1980s. In its infancy, pay TV faced similar protection issues, especially with the advent of the VHS recorder and the ingenuity of those who labored to descramble pay TV signals. The company became quite adept at conditional access and ended up providing these services across Africa and Europe, eventually covering broadcast, cable, and satellite.

Entriq seeks to do the same with broadband, IPTV, and mobile content, and uses its conditional access heritage to define effective DRM for its customers. The "window approach" allows Entriq to help its customers define a period of time and geography in which the customer’s content can be viewed. This narrows the window of opportunity for content to be pirated, as much of Entriq’s protected content is timely and shown live.