Face it, digital rights management technology (aka: C.R.A.P. — also see CRAP, The Movie and CRAP, The Sequel) is nasty stuff. It's mainstream usage is only a couple of years old. But the list of DRM-caused trainwrecks in consumer-land (a list that you can easily help to maintain) contains some pretty brow-raising stories that should make the even the staunchest advocates of the anti-piracy technology say "hmmmm." Meanwhile, despite the trainwrecks, the content providers (primarily the record labels and movie studios) aren't about to let go on the anti-piracy front anytime soon. In other words, it appears as though DRM is hear to stay for a while. In other words, Plan A (get rid of DRM altogether) may take long than we hoped. So, the question is, is there a Plan B that can make this miserable, trainwreck-laden world of CRAP more tolerable? The answer may come down to seeking out the least of all DRM evils.
Until last month, my vote for the least of all DRM evils went to Sun's Project DReaM. Although it's not as open to open source developers as we'd like an open standard for DRM to be, it's quite possible that we'll never be able to have an open standard for DRM given some thorny issues that have to do with the amount of programmatic control that software developers (including open source developers) would have over protected content once its unlocked. For example, they could write code that, right after unlocking some content, just copies a piratable version straight onto the Internet. Sun's idea is to withhold the keys to the content from developers until their software is tested by some independent party to prove that it upholds the anti-piracy policies of content providers, as expressed through the DRM technology.
But the problem with DReaM is that, currenlty, it's just a dream. In other words, it's not on the market yet. But Navio, which came out of stealth mode last month, is. Instead of coming up with a new form of DRM, Navio has come up with another way to (1) allow content producers to protect their content against piracy while (2) ameliorating two of the most hideous downsides of DRM technology -- the problem where the content (music, movies, etc.) you buy doesn't work on all of your devices (because of DRM incmpatibilities) and the problem where, if the computer that keeps track of the content you purchased crashes, you may lose all the content you purchased. The big question is whether or not Navio will get sued or not by the very litigious Apple.
To find out more about Navio's approach, I interviewed the company's COO Ray Schaaf. The audio files of the interview were some of many that I fortunately recovered over the weekend after my Thinkpad crashed on me. So, I'm happy to be able to finally bring this interview to you. You can download it manually or, if you're subscribed to ZDNet's IT Matters series of podcasts, they'll be downloaded to your system or MP3 player automatically (see ZDNet’s podcasts: How to tune in).
Perhaps the coolest thing about Navio's approach is how it keeps track of what you've purchased on the Web. What this means is that if you're computer crashes, or you lose your devices that are storing your content, there's no problem. You just go back to the site where you purchased the content (actually, you purchase the "rights" to use the content), and you can download a new copy. This approach makes Apple's iTunes seem almost prehistoric in the way it works and what can happen if the computer you run iTunes on crashes. It's sort of like having an online digital locker. But wait, there's more.
So, you own both an iPod and a pair of Oakley's Thumprs (sunglasses with a built-in MP3 playback functionality)? Normally, to legally playback any music (on both devices) that you purchased one song at a time, you'd have to purchase two copies of the same song. One that's compatible with Microsoft's DRM (found in the Thumprs) and another that's compatible with Apple's DRM (found in iPods). But, by reverse engineering Apple's DRM (known as FairPlay) and licensing Microsoft's DRM, online merchants whose stores are based on Navio's platform can deliver two copies of the same content, each encoded for the different devices you use, for one price. In other words, you purchase the content once and Navio's platform will not only remember what content you have a right to use, you can always come back and download it again, in whatever format is appropriate for the devices you use.
How does Navio's platform deliver content that's compatible with the protection scheme that iPod's are expecting to work with? That's where Navio's reverse engineering of Apple's Fairplay DRM comes in. Navio didn't reverse engineer it so that consumers can illegally remove the copy protection from content that's downloaded from iTunes. Navio reverse engineered it so that online merchants that use its platform can essentially emulate Apple's iTunes store by delivering protected content in the only format that iPods (audio or video) know how to unlock. But wait, there's more.
Navio's platform isn't just for music or movies. It's for games, software, text, ringtone, images, wallpaper and just about any other content that can be protected too. Buy once. Write to many. So, imagine if you download one of EA Sports many video games for Nintendo and you switch platforms to a PlayStation. Not that they have the digital rights management infrastructure in place, but, theoretically, Navio's platform can keep track of the fact that you have the rights to certain games and, when and if you need those games in a certain format, it could deliver them to you.
And what about software? Well, if you've been following my recent hard drive disaster at all, then you'd know that one of my problems is that I have a bunch of software that I downloaded from the Internet that I unlocked by paying the developer for a key. For example, FTP Voyager. Here's the problem. I can't reinstall the software. The versions of all the software I had were working perfectly for my needs. But since first unlocking all the software, new versions came out that my keys, even if I could find them, won't work on anymore. Not that it matters. I can't find the keys (another problem). Navio's platform could solve this problem too. It could keep (in its digital locker) a copy of the software I purchased and redeliver it to me any time I need it.
So, what's the catch? Well, besides the question of whether Apple may pull out its legal guns now that another company has reverse engineered its DRM (Real is the other, something Schaaf talks about in the interview), there isn't a whole lot of content available through Navio-enabled merchants. To date, the only content being distributed is for mobile phones. Disney*Pixar is running a store through which ringtones, wallpaper, and games based on the animated movie Cars can be purchased. Fox also has some phone-oriented stores geared towards content that's available on its television neworks. That said, Navio is ahead of DReaM on the lesser of all DRM evils front and if it or its merchants nail any deals with any movie studios or record labels (and if it avoids litigation with Apple), it could very well be the company that breaks the DRM logjam.