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DRM still relevant in Web 2.0 era

Digital rights management remains important in era of user-generated content, but firms must find new ways to manage content access instead of mere "lockdown" methods, say analysts.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor on

Despites its unpopular reputation, digital rights management (DRM) remains relevant in today's digital age with the advent of cloud, social media and user-generated content, analysts say. And businesses need to figure out new ways of managing content access and protection that will not negatively impact consumers.

Adrian Drury, principal analyst at Ovum, defined DRM as the process of managing, settling, protecting and securing access to digital content, whether file-based content or a cached stream.

DRM came into existence as an access control technology to attribute conditional access permissions to digital data, subject to the terms defined by the rights owner, Drury explained in an e-mail.

Benjamin Cavender, associate principal at China Market Research Group (CMR), noted that as a content management system, DRM determines how content is used and who can use it. For instance, it can dictate the number of devices an audio file can be copied to, or what hardware a digital book can be viewed on, he said.

Mike McGuire, research vice president of media at Gartner, said: "[DRM] has acquired a bad reputation [because] rights-holders and media companies [had] an unsustainable and unachievable set of requirements in their business and usage rules which they were asking the DRM technology to enforce."

DRM made headlines in 2005 when record company Sony BMG released music compact discs (CDs) embedded with its own DRM tool that limited the number of copies users could replicate from the CD. It also barred users from creating unprotected MP3 files. The DRM program would automatically install a rootkit in the computer once the CD is played, creating vulnerabilities in the PC that would allow other malware to hide and operate undetected.

Ovum's Drury said: "DRM was misunderstood in the consumer press, poorly covered by the industry press and vilified by the open source community. DRM, inevitably, involves a tradeoff between consumer, retailer and rights owner [where] an optimal outcome [will] mean all parties are moderately unhappy with the result."

DRM still relevant
Ariel Avitan, consulting analyst for network security technologies at Frost & Sullivan, noted that DRM will only become more relevant as society moves toward a fully digitalized marketplace.

With the rise of Web 2.0, user-generated content and social media, there will be an increased need for user-centric applications and monitoring that still give the liberty to consumers but also protect digital assets from misuse, Avitan explained.

Drury added that DRM remains relevant today because digital content security is more vital in the Web 2.0 age.

He reasoned that premium content distribution has been moving away from established broadcast networks, which already have mature conditional access technologies, where the consumer's only opportunity to control an instance of the content was the videocassette recorder (VCR). Nowadays, content distribution is increasingly done over Internet Protocol-based networks and pushed out to multiple devices, he pointed out.

The Ovum analyst added that as cloud-based services that are accessible via multiscreen media continue to develop, DRM technologies will continue to be a critical foundation for these technologies. He cited the example of Google's Content ID technologyfor YouTube which allows copyright owners to identify and manage their content on the site.

CMR's Cavender, however, said it is difficult to make a case for DMR's relevancy given the amount of content available in the cloud and the amount of user-generated content being developed. He pointed to how Netizens in China can listen to pretty much any music they want for free via Web sites such as Baidu, and watch popular TV shows nearly as fast as such content go live via sites such as Tudou and Youku.

Cavender noted that while DRM is not necessarily on its way out, in practical terms, it is "extremely difficult" to work effectively in China because there are too many sources of unprotected content available to consumers.

Furthermore, DRM also introduces other complications because it restricts a buyer of legitimate goods more than someone who pirates it, he added.

Managing, enforcing DRM
And even if DRM is implemented, ensuring its compliance will prove daunting.

According to Drury, the enforcement and management of DRM is not as much the issue as is controlling the economic incentive to piracy and the use of pirate services. That, he said, is the real challenge for the businesses such as the entertainment industry.

Drury said: "DRM technologies, by definition, are always breakable and there will always be a rebellious portion of the market that will seek to crack the latest technology.

"The real goal should be providing highly convenient, well-priced services so piracy becomes a minority sport," he said.

Cavender noted that DRM's role of "locking down content accessibility is ultimately going to fail".

He added that if companies want to successfully manage access control, they will have to try another tack such as creating easy-to-use platforms for consuming content.

"Consumers can come to terms with the right-restricted media, but only if it is as easy to use as the pirated version," he said.

McGuire also noted that many media companies and copyright holders are realizing that lockdown DRM approaches need to give way to more flexible models, which Gartner refers to as digital experience management (DEM) such as cloud-based subscription services.

Drury also pointed to MOG All Access as a DRM alternative. MOG, which licenses content directly from copyright owners, offers a subscription-based streaming music service at US$5 a month which gives users unlimited on-demand streams of over 6 million songs.

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