May 30, 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.

Three Down, One to Go: Warner Music to Sell MP3s

Warner Music will sell music through Amazon’s online store without DRM (copy protection) technology, according to a New York Times story by Jeff Leeds. This is a big step for Warner, given that earlier this year Warner CEO Edgar Bronfman said that selling MP3s would be “completely without logic or merit.”

The next question is whether Warner will make a deal with Apple to sell MP3s on iTunes too. The NYT article says Warner plans to do so, but the LA Times implies the opposite. The two other majors that sell MP3s are split on this point, with EMI selling MP3s through multiple stores including iTunes, and Universal Music selling MP3s through other online stores but refusing to do so through iTunes. Is Warner willing to inconvenience its customers in order to undercut Apple?

By the way, the Times article makes a simple but common mistake, in saying that “the industry faces increasing pressure to bolster digital music sales as its traditional business — selling CDs — suffers a sharp decline.” CDs are digital too, and they lack DRM (attempts to add DRM to CDs failed disastrously), but news stories and commentary often ignore these facts. I guess “Warner to adopt another DRM-free digital format” wouldn’t seem quite so newsworthy.

Three of the four majors (all but SonyBMG) now sell MP3s. It’s only a matter of time before the last domino falls, and the industry can move on to the next stage in its evolution.

The Return of 3-D Movies

[Today’s guest post is by longtime reader and commenter Mitch Golden. Thanks, Mitch! If you’re a Freedom to Tinker reader and have a great idea for a guest post, please let me know. – Ed]

Last Friday I was at a movie preview for a concert movie called U23D, which, as you will correctly surmise, was a U2 concert filmed in digital 3D.

A few weeks ago I saw the new film Beowulf, also in 3D.

As I look out the office window to the AMC Loews on 84th St, I see that the marquee is already pitching Hannah Montana 3d, not due out until February.

And outside that same theater is a 3d movie poster for the upcoming Speed Racer movie.

Suddenly everything is floating in space, after decades of flatness. What gives?

Those of us who frequent Freedom To Tinker know that there are two approaches for producers operating in our world of nearly-zero-cost copying. The option most often pursued thus far by the content industries has been to pin hope on a technological fix – DRM – and then use political muscle to get governments around the world to mandate its use. Thus far this strategy can only be said to have been pretty much a total train wreck for all the parties involved – from the record industry to Microsoft – and it has had the disastrous side effect (from their point of view) of persuading an entire generation – and then some – that the media companies are “the man” and so file sharing is not immoral.

Of course the other option – thus far being resisted strenuously by the record labels – is to try a new business model. Sell the customers something better than what they can get for free. Maybe – just maybe – that’s what’s going on here.

As you doubtless know, there’s nothing new about 3d movie or photos. In fact, they go back nearly to the very beginning of photography. To make the 3d effect work, you just need to present different images, shot from slightly different perspectives, to the two eyes. While various systems have been invented over the years to do this (see the wikipedia page on the subject for a bit of the history of the technology), they all to a greater or lesser extent shared the common faults that (a) the theater had to install special equipment (including a more expensive screen that reflects polarized light without depolarizing it), (b) the film was bigger and more difficult to handle, and (c) splicing the film print when it broke required careful treatment to avoid getting the two eyes out of sync. So it just wasn’t quite worth it.

So why are we seeing these movies again now? One possibility is that the explanation for the renaissance of 3d is just that digital technology solves some of these problems (especially b and c), and so filmmakers are interested in trying again.

However, I think it’s possible there’s something else going on. Could it have something to do with the fact that a 3d movie cannot be pirated?

According to IMDB, the LA premier of Beowulf was on November 5, 2007 and the film was officially released in the US on November 16. On the other hand, according to vcdquality (a news site that announces the “releases” of films into various darknets) it was already available for file sharing by November 15.

Isn’t it just possible that the studios were thinking: Hey guys, I know you could just download this fantasy flick and see it on your widescreen monitor. But unless you give us $11 and sit in a dark theater with the polarized glasses, you won’t be seeing the half-naked Angelina Jolie literally popping off the screen!

Maybe the studios have learned something after all.

Slysoft Commercializes Next-Gen DVD Circumvention

We’ve been following, off and on, the steady meltdown of AACS, the encryption scheme used in HD-DVD and Blu-ray, the next-generation DVD systems. By this point, Hollywood has released four generations of AACS-encoded discs, each encrypted with different secret keys; and the popular circumvention tools can still decrypt them all. The industry is stuck on a treadmill: they change keys every ninety days, and attackers promptly reverse-engineer the new keys and carry on decrypting discs.

One thing that has changed is the nature of the attackers. In the early days, the most effective reverse engineers were individuals, communicating by email and pseudonymous form posts. Their efforts resulted in rough but workable circumvention tools. In recent months, though, circumvention has gone commercial, with Slysoft, an Antigua-based maker of DVD-reader software, taking the lead and offering more polished tools for reading and ripping AACS discs.

You might wonder how a company that makes software for playing DVDs got into the circumvention business. The answer has to do with AACS’s pickiness about which equipment it will work with. My lab, for example, has an HD-DVD drive and some discs, which we have used for research purposes. But as far as I know, none of the computer monitors we own are AACS-approved, so we have no way to watch our lawfully purchased HD-DVDs on our lawfully purchased equipment. Many customers face similar problems.

If you’re selling HD-DVD player software, you can tell those customers that your product is incompatible with their equipment. Or you can solve their problem and make their legitimately purchased discs play on their legitimately purchased equipment. Of course, this will make you persona non grata in Hollywood, so you had better hire a few reverse engineers and get to work on some unauthorized decryption software – which seems to be what Slysoft did.

Now Slysoft faces the same reverse engineering challenges that Hollywood did. If Slysoft’s products contain the secrets to AACS decryption, then independent analysts can extract those secrets and clone Slysoft’s AACS decryption capability. Will those who live by reverse engineering die by reverse engineering?

Grokster Case Lumbers On; Judge To Issue Permanent Injunction

Remember the Grokster case? In which the Supreme Court found the filesharing companies Grokster and StreamCast liable for indirect copyright infringement, for “inducing” infringement by their users? You might have thought that case ended back in 2005. But it’s still going on, and the original judge just issued an interesting ruling. (Jason Schultz has a two part summary of the ruling.)

The issue now before the judge is what relief to grant the copyright-owner plaintiffs against StreamCast, which is the only defendant still standing. It’s apparently a given that the judge will eventually assess monetary damages against StreamCast. And you’d think these damages would be enough to kill StreamCast, so it’s not clear why StreamCast hasn’t just thrown in the towel, shut its doors, and handed over all its assets to the plaintiffs. Instead, StreamCast fought on, so the judge had to decide what kind of injunction, if any, to impose on StreamCast – that is, what rules would govern StreamCast’s future behavior.

The judge first considered the question of whether he could impose on StreamCast obligations (beyond payment of damages) that go beyond what the law requires of ordinary companies. Would he just award money damages and sternly command StreamCast not to break the law again; or would he go further and impose a permanent injunction? After a detailed legal analysis, he concluded that a permanent injunction was appropriate. StreamCast had actively promoted itself as a haven for infringement and “that bell cannot be unrung”.

The copyright-owner plaintiffs had asked for an injunction requiring StreamCast to apply all feasible anti-infringement technologies and to stop all infringment. StreamCast had built its own filtering technology which it said was effective enough, and much cheaper and more practical than commercially available alternatives.

The judge first rejected the plaintiff’s proposal that StreamCast be required to stop all infringement using its software. He recognized, correctly, that that would be impossible, so that such an injunction would be a death sentence for StreamCast.

Instead, the judge will require StreamCast to set up a filtering system that reasonably balances effectiveness and cost, with the strong emphasis on effectiveness. The precise details will be worked out with the help of a special master: an independent technical expert to be appointed by the judge. Which means yet more legal process to choose the special master, wait for the special master’s advice, and then order specific action from StreamCast.

All of this may be proper from a legal standpoint, but it seems unlikely to matter in practice. It’s hard to see how StreamCast can sustain a business given the legal and financial strain they must be under, and the likely ruinous monetary damages they’re still facing. I can understand why the plaintiffs might want to keep StreamCast on life support, in the hope of getting legal rulings that prove helpful elsewhere. But why does StreamCast keep fighting?