June 16, 2024

DRM Not Dead, Just Temporarily Indisposed, Says RIAA Tech Head

The RIAA’s head technology guy says that the move away from DRM (anti-copying) technology by record labels is just a phase, according to a Greg Sandoval story at News.com:

“(Recently) I made a list of the 22 ways to sell music, and 20 of them still require DRM,” said David Hughes, who heads up the RIAA’s technology unit, during a panel discussion at the Digital Hollywood conference. “Any form of subscription service or limited play-per-view or advertising offer still requires DRM. So DRM is not dead.”

Last January, when Sony BMG became the last major recording company to sell DRM-free tracks at Amazon, plenty of observers considered the technology buried. Since then, a growing number of online stores have begun offering at least some open MP3s, including Walmart.com, Zune’s Marketplace, Amazon, as well as iTunes.

Not so fast, said Hughes, who predicted that DRM would reemerge in a big way. “I think there is going to be a shift,” he told the audience. “I think there will be a movement towards subscription services, and (that) will eventually mean the return of DRM.”

The imminent success of subscription services with DRM is more or less what the record industry was predicting several years ago. It didn’t happen, mostly because customers found the services clunky and inflexible – DRM at its worst. Nothing has changed to make DRMed subscription services more attractive. If anything, these services look even worse in light of the trend toward selling DRM-free tracks.

I can see the argument for selling large bundles of music rather than selling one track at a time. Bundling makes economic sense, given the huge storage capacity of today’s devices. The iPod of the future won’t be filled one track at a time.

But clunky DRM-based subscription services aren’t the only way to sell bundles of songs, and there are probably good ways to sell subscriptions without DRM. If you’re worried that a customer will subscribe for one month, download a zillion songs, cancel the subscription and keep the songs,then you can limit the number of downloads per month, or require a longer subscription period. If you can sell songs without DRM – and we know now that you can – there ought to be a way to sell a friendly subscription service too.

On this issue, the RIAA’s members may be ahead of the RIAA itself. There are encouraging signs that some of the major record companies are recognizing the need to rebuild their business strategy for the Internet era.


  1. Its voice was so low that at first he could not make out what it said. Then he made it out. It was saying that it thought it could get well again if industry analysts believed in DRM.

    Peter flung out his arms. There were no industry analysts there, and it was night time; but he addressed all who might be dreaming of the Fruit and Flowers, and who were therefore nearer to him than you think: boys and girls with straws up their noses, and naked office runners in their baskets hung from trees.

    “Do you believe?” he cried.

    The RIAA sat up in bed almost briskly to listen to its fate.

    It fancied it heard answers in the affirmative, and then again it wasn’t sure.

    “What do you think?” it asked Peter.

    “If you believe,” he shouted to them, “clap your hands; don’t let the RIAA die.”

    Many clapped.

    Some didn’t.

    A few beasts hissed.

    The clapping stopped suddenly; as if countless editors had rushed to their offices to see what on earth was happening; but already the RIAA was saved. First its voice grew strong, then it popped out of bed, then it was flashing through the room more merry and impudent than ever. It never thought of thanking those who believed, but it would have like to get at the ones who had hissed.

    Only joking. The RIAA died. Because DRM doesn’t exist.

  2. On another note, the operators of Sunncomm, now known as Amergence, are selling a new version of their famous DRM failure, Mediamax, now called Tranzbyte.



  3. supercat says

    How hard would it be to wire in an adapter to record the signal going to a pair of headphones so that it could be played back with essentially the same level of fidelity it had when it was sent to the headphones? Even if one had to use special DRM-equipped digital headphones to get the best sound quality, opening them up to tap the signals from the elements shouldn’t be a problem.

    DRM requirements for video monitors make at least a teensy weensy bit of sense, since it’s possible to make an LCD or plasma screen in which the signal being viewed never exists anywhere in its entirety in unencrypted usable form. Getting a good high-definition copy of a protected video source would require carefully calibrating a camera to a particular screen (probably putting the camera on a tripod that was bolted to the floor) but with the right camera equipment any reasonable-sized pirate entity that wants to rip off videos could do so pretty easily.

  4. The ironically named microsoft “plays4sure” format allowed for use of compatible portable devices (non-streaming) which could handle the format and had timing code built in to prevent playing the music if it had not been reauthorized (i think this was set to 30 days) by connecting it to the computer that had the “unlimited music” subscription service.

    It really was not a bad idea, but was a complete failure in implementation:
    1. Licensing was a pain to operate and very often gave mystery errors
    2. Your favorite song could be taken away from you even if you were still subscribed to the service!
    3. portable devices stunk compared to ipod
    4. music player programs stunk compared to itunes

    #1,3,4 can be solved by a smart company that sells a good portable device, good software, and understands how to handle DRM with minimal inconvenience to the customer. #2 could be negotiated with the record labels, given how desperate they are to find a new working revenue model.

    Steve Jobs knows this well, and is just waiting for the right time to implement this without hurting existing iTunes store sales.

  5. FTL travel may be impossible, but instantaneous signalling at a distance (in same relativistic frame) may well be possible. And who needs to travel when telepresence is just as good?

  6. Mormegil says

    “(Recently) I made a list of the 22 ways of space travel, and 20 of them still require FTL,” said John Doe, who heads up the NAZA’s technology unit, during a panel discussion at the Towards the Stars conference. “Any form of interstellar travel or effective communication or space commercionalization still requires FTL. So FTL is not dead.”

    …except it’s probably just impossible, but who cares…

  7. Let’s not confuse DRM capability with the way DRM has been (infamously) implemented. The examples provided by SACD, DVD and the major labels’ initial 99-cent downloads simply show DRM taking something away from consumers. Mike Ash’s Rhapsody example is more instructive, IMHO, because it shows how DRM can segment a market and enable people to purchase fewer rights when it’s in their interests to do so. I love Rhapsody because it lets me listen to things in their entirety without having to own them. I don’t want the full bundle of rights to, say, the new R.E.M. record — I just want to hear it a time or two, and then I’ll be done with it. I also like the idea of using DRM to preload a portable player with songs, enabling me to pay for only the ones that I decide to keep. (Most recent use of Rhapsody: streaming a bunch of different versions of “Iron Man” for my 5-year-old. We wouldn’t want to keep any of them, but it was fun while it lasted.) Nor do I mind DRM being used to stop me from pulling the commercials out of a music podcast, provided that it’s free. Again, if DRM is used to segment the market and let me pay a smaller amount for a more limited experience, with the alternative still available to pay more for an unlimited experience, I’m not offended by it.

  8. Govt Skeptic says

    “I made a list of the 22 ways to sell music, and 20 of them still require DRM”
    So by my math, there are still 2 viable ways to sell music. I wonder if one of those ways is “live performance.”
    DRM is not dead; it’s pining for the fjords.

  9. Steve Jobs is the “most powerful man in music” because, in a DRM-based music business model, the DRM vendor takes over the role of the record company.

    The RIAA member companies are in trouble because they decided to kill their key channel for connecting with music tastemakers, the cool record store. CD pricing and promotion favors Wal-Mart and other big chains that use hit CDs as a loss leader. Without the cool record store, the RIAA members are floundering for a new way to introduce people to new music.

  10. Analyzer says

    Every day a word of terror from the RIAA and MPAA. Today it is a lie about DRM, tomorrow they proclaim that Internet access has to be restricted (to be unidirectional and limited), and the day after that they sue dead people again. But if only 10% of this nonsense proves successful, then we have to deal with 30 days per year of llegislation written by the MAFIAA, lawsuits, crippled Internet connections (at home, research labs and universities), rootkits, low quality productions, limited access to products from independent producers etc. And that does have an impact, as we all know. This terror strategy is of course not limited to the US. Other countries are facing the music, too, and they better comply, or else. I am so sick and tired of the MAFIAA.

  11. Tony Lauck says

    Unfortunately for those of us who are concerned about sound quality, DRM is very much alive. Record labels belonging to the RIAA are selling SACD albums that use DRM to protect the high resolution layer of audio data. This locks buyers of SACDs into using proprietary SACD players if they wish to play their music in enhanced resolution. This lock-in inhibits the use of PC based audio playback for SACD media, and is one of the reasons why SACD is not doing well in the marketplace.

    A number of smaller labels sell DRM free music downloads in CD quality or higher resolution. So far as I know, no major label is selling CD quality music as a download. Amazon and Apple sell compressed formats, and even the highest resolution compressed format is not suitable for classical music with good sound quality.

    As a result, I have totally ceased purchasing any music from RIAA member companies, and frequent only independents. Living in rural Vermont, it is not practical to visit record stores and I see no reason to pay high shipping costs or wait days to receive bits that can be much more cheaply shipped over the net. I would be delighted to see the RIAA companies change, but I doubt that will happen. Therefore, I would be equally delighted to see them go out of business.

  12. dr2chase, there’s another common subscription model in which you basically get a music buffet, but only for as long as you stay subscribed. In other words, if you’re a subscriber you can pick any number of tracks from the service’s entire catalog, but if you cancel your subscription you lose them all. Real’s Rhapsody service is, I believe, like this. The intent is that you just subscribe to music, and the fact that it ends up downloading files to you that need to be killed when you leave is supposed to be an implementation detail. Without DRM, this kind of service really can’t exist unless it stays as a purely streaming service, which means it won’t play well with your iPod at all.

  13. Fool me once, shame on… uh… Microsoft…

  14. dr2chase says

    I thought Emusic was a subscription service — I get my N downloads per month, use them or lose them, and they’re DRM-free, and that’s exactly why I use THAT subscription service, and don’t buy from any of the other guys.

    Or does that word (subscription) not mean what I think it means?