Now that Microsoft's licensed DRM doesn't "Play For Sure," will any DRM do it? Ever?

The rest of the world is beginning to get hip to what happens when the provider of a digital rights management technology (DRM) decides to change gears as Microsoft recently did when it essentially forked its DRM into two versions: one that it keeps for itself and its Zune brand and the other, known as PlaysForSure that, for the time being, it continues to license to licensees such as Real, Yahoo, F.Y.
Written by David Berlind, Inactive

The rest of the world is beginning to get hip to what happens when the provider of a digital rights management technology (DRM) decides to change gears as Microsoft recently did when it essentially forked its DRM into two versions: one that it keeps for itself and its Zune brand and the other, known as PlaysForSure that, for the time being, it continues to license to licensees such as Real, Yahoo, F.Y.E., Napster, AOL, Wal-Mart and MTV. Even prior to this gear-shift, I occasionally referred to PlaysForSure as PlaysForSuren't since music and videos that are locked up with Microsoft's copy protection technology actually don't play for sure on every device you might want them to (eg: iPods). That said, PlaysForSure-compliant content most definitely works on more devices than does content locked up by Apple's DRM (FairPlay).  Inicidentally, just to show I discriminate with this sort of treament, I've also referred to FairPlay as "UnFairPlay."

But, since content that's protected with Microsoft's PlaysForSure (including content purchased from Microsoft's soon-to-be-closed online music store) won't even work on Microsoft's Zune-branded devices, the contradiction that has long been "plays for sure" has been taken to a new level. The situation has Jamie, a blogger over on Microsoft's Channel 9, now referring to PlaysForSure as PlaysForMaybe:

I really dont get how the biggest software co. in the world - sets up a huge network of partners to trumpet their own technology: "plays for sure" - then when it itself enters the market - refuses to use it....Now if it was called "Windows Media Approved" - and zune didnt support it - that would be one thing... but the fact that you guys named the eco-system Plays for Sure - and then went and made the term meaningless seems counter-intuitive?...If I was a partner in [PlaysForSure], I'd be pretty peeved off.

That last part is the part that's got me stymied too. One day, Microsoft was a business partner to all the PlaysForSure licensees. The next? A competitor. For starters, to any PlaysForSure licensee that didn't know that this risk existed, I have no sympathy. As with any technology provider, Microsoft is of course entitled to do whatever it thinks it must do (legally) to fend off a credible threat. In this case, given FairPlay's market dominance as a DRM system, Apple is a very real and credible threat to a lot of Microsoft's businesses (virtually the entire software stack could one day subjugate itself to DRM). But, if Microsoft's PlaysForSure licensees are peeved about the gear shift, they sure aren't voting with their dollars by vacating the PlaysForSure ecosystem. Of course, they could be staying put for good reasons. Like the fact that there may be no viable alternatives.

Back in the early days of Microsoft's Passport single sign-on technology, Sun's Jonathan Schwartz warned that Passport licensees might one day find themselves in competition with the vendor of Passport: Microsoft. Schwartz, then in his pre-COO days (let alone CEO days), then established and personally drove an open and competing ecosystem (the Liberty Alliance) into the market. He lobbied hard for all potential stakeholders to get behind it and many did. 

To the extent that Microsoft is now competing with PlaysForSure licensees, Microsoft's gear-shift around DRM is a realization of that warning. The difference is that neither Sun nor any other IT vendor has stepped in to put Microsoft and/or Apple (the two prevailing proprietors of DRM technology) into check. Not only does Sun have the seed technology (called Project DReaM) the way it did for the Liberty Alliance, it even has in place a separate organization (Open Media Commons or the OMC) that can serve as chaperone to the open technology. Theoretically, the Liberty formula is ready to be repeated with the OMC. And what better time to repeat it than at that very point when existing stakeholders are peeved and seeking an alternative?

But, as far as I can tell, the various stakeholders (the whole entertainment cartel, Yahoo, AOL, etc.) are happy to let Apple and Microsoft call the shots. All is quiet on the Western front. Or is it? Originally, I thought there hadn't been a peep out of Sun about Project DReaM or the OMC since Zune first showed up on the radar. I figured that this can only mean one of two things: (a) OMC and DReaM are either floundering or dead or (b) there's something large but stealthy in the works that only a handful of people know about. But then, before completing this blog entry, I decided to double check the URL for the OMC by visiting its Web site.

When I got there, I noticed a podcast interview (by Sun's Hal Stern, of Sun's current DReaM figurehead Tom Jacobs) was published just yesterday. At approximately 6:30 into the interview, Jacobs indicates that he was on some sort of conference call in advance an "upcoming Digital Hollywood event" taking place in Santa Monica. At first, I began to wonder if Sun and the OMC had some big news planned. But, as it turns out, the Santa Monica edition of that event took place last month which means that the podcast was published approximately one month after it was recorded (back in early to mid October). Not only that, the Santa Monica edition of Digital Hollywood appears to have pretty much come and gone without a peep from Sun or the OMC after all. Whatever happened on that conference call was apparently no big deal. 

So, while the project still seems to be getting funding from Sun, there's no driving force at Sun working the smoke signals the way Schwartz did with Liberty. Meanwhile, the window of opportunity, while still open, will inch closed when Microsoft's Zune comes to market on November 15th. Advantage: Microsoft. 

Finally, I get a lot of harrassment from those opposed to DRM when I talk about how it would be better for the market to have a standard and open DRM system versus multiple proprietary ones. They're not so different from each other that one version stands a chance of technologically serving the market better than the others (the way Blu-Ray and HD-DVD claim to be better than each other). So, just to be clear, what I most want is no DRM. But I don't see the entertainment cartel changing its mind any time soon in terms of the copy-protection it requires before it will allow its content to be sold for download on the Internet. I also don't think the status quo will be disrupted any time soon by rebel forces of independent artists who are willing to work under different business rules. So, short of eliminating DRM altogether, things would be a lot better if DRM were more open and interoperable.  

Poll update: A couple of weeks ago, I asked who should be Microsoft's Bono? The point was that Apple has brilliantly taken a technology business (iTunes Music Store, iTunes Software, and iPods) and turned it into a fashion business. I listed a bunch of choices that Microsoft to pick to be its Bono. What I didn't realize is that there are at least four other candidates (perhaps they will work in combination). Looking at MSN Music, Microsoft has already been sponsoring (see bottom left) three musicians on tour: John Mayer, John Legend, and Rod Stewart (a trio that together could transcend multiple generations the way U2's Bono does for the iPod). In addition to those three, Microsoft was a major supporter of the reality show Rock Star Supernova during which rock superstars Tommy Lee (Mötley Crüe), Gilby Clarke (Guns N Roses), and Jason Newsted (Metallica). So, maybe Microsoft's Bono will be more of an all-star line-up. Or, maybe not.

Disclosure: In the spirit of media transparency, I want to disclose that in addition to my day job at ZDNet, I’m also a co-organizer of Mashup Camp, Mashup University, and Startup Camp. Microsoft and Sun, both of which are mentioned in this story, were sponsors of one or more of those events. For more information on my involvement with these and other events, see the special disclosure page that I’ve prepared and published here on ZDNet.

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