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DRM Demystified
Reports of DRM's death have been greatly exaggerated. If anything, it's more important than ever. Here's a look at the leading DRM technologies, as well as a glimpes into DRM's future.
Thurs., Dec. 6, by Christopher Levy

This story first appeared in the October/November issue of Streaming Media magazine. Click here for your free subscription.

When Streaming Media magazine asked me to write an article about the state of digital rights management (DRM), I admittedly jumped at the opportunity. Not since the digital media format wars of the late ’90s have we seen a subject galvanize an audience so quickly.

Postings about DRM on forums regularly draw in a vocal crowd with a laundry list of complaints and as well as kudos about DRM and its widespread use. That being said, there has been a lot of negative press lately about DRM, primarily focused on the music industry and its woes. To some extent, the confusion created as a result has created more questions than it has provided answers.

Many have pointed to the recent announcements by EMI and Universal that they will begin offering DRM-free music in various online outlets as an indicator of the death of DRM. Let’s look at what is really going on here. The iPod uses a DRM technology called FairPlay, which Apple does not license to third parties. This really leaves the music industry with very few options if they want to sell music directly to the public, especially to consumers with iPods. To successfully compete with the iTunes monster they helped create, the record companies have one viable option: to set up their own music stores sans-DRM in the hope they can begin to claw back those millions of customers they sent to Apple. It’s not hard to envision a music industry exec writing, "Note to self: Next time we endorse a technology we cannot license, let’s be sure to get our customers’ names and billing information."

Apple made DRM a mainstream technology on its way to selling more than two billion songs encrypted with FairPlay, and yet it refuses to play fair with the marketplace. It is a wonder that Apple has not received more pressure to license FairPlay, given that the company would create a much broader market for pay-media content on the iPod. However, in doing so, it would lose its stranglehold over the online music marketplace, and this is apparently something Steve Jobs is not willing to let happen.

All of this hype aside, and as shocking as it sounds, the music industry’s woes are great for the press and provide a lot of fodder for writers and publishers to create ad impressions on websites—and that’s about it. The music industry is not and has never been a pacesetter for the broader online video marketplace or digital media industry at large. Therefore we have to look past its current situation and search out the broader implications of deploying DRM technology for profit and long-term growth.

So let’s set the record straight: DRM is alive and well and still a key technology in use by content owners and licensees, media distribution businesses, and pay-media portals around the globe. This past year has seen a startling number of media monoliths deploy new DRM-enabled offerings—including NBA.com offering the entire NBA Finals; UFC.com providing unlimited access to pay-per-view fights online; and American Idol selling full-length music downloads from the wildly successful TV show on AmericanIdol.com. TV New Zealand even got into the act with its award-winning TVNZ on-demand service.

If you still have doubts, look no further than the notorious P2P technology company BitTorrent, which recently launched a DRM-enabled offering with full-length movies and TV shows from several major studios and networks. To top it off, RealNetworks and MTV announced Rhapsody America, which will continue a longstanding tradition at both companies of utilizing DRM for selling their pay-media content.Suffice it to say DRM continues to be one of a few technologies that enable some form of portable and flexible control over the usage of digital media. The technology is in play in some form across literally thousands of websites. Let’s take a look at the major DRM technology players today.

Adobe Flash DRM
At NAB in April 2007, Adobe rolled out several upgrades to its Flash Media Server 2 that are DRM-like and provide greater security for Flash Video objects. If you are providing Flash content as a progressive download, users can record the content from the cache in their web browser using a "ripper." However, streaming the content using the proprietary Adobe Real Time Messaging Protocol (RTMP) results in increased protection from rippers. From Adobe’s website: "By default, content delivered by Flash Media Server is wrapped inside an Adobe protocol called RTMP. Because this is an unpublished, proprietary format, none of the RTSP stream ripping programs have the capability to rip media delivered over Flash Media Server." Adobe also supports simple domain and IP authentication schemas as well as SSL to further enhance the security of Flash content.