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DECE and the War on Ownership

January 15, 2010 , , , ,

In the media world, there’s an ongoing war about what it means to “own” a copy of something. Most of us are used to the world of paper books and plastic CDs, where the media you buy is yours to do what you like with, be that play it in your living room, lend it to a friend, or (as a practical matter) rip it to your computer for your own use on other devices or locations. But in the world of DRM, the copyright owner gets to decide when, if, and for how long you get to do those things. The latest salvo in the battle to get consumers to accept DRM is DECE: the “Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem.” DECE appears to be an attempt to make DRM interoperate better across different devices, services, and content sources. Is this a good thing – or at least a less bad thing – for content users? I’m not holding my breath…

Ownership vs. Rental

At World’s Fair Use Day, Michael Robertson, currently of mp3tunes.com and formerly of mp3.com [archived], put the problem succinctly: “Do you own your digital property?” He continued (as hastily transcribed by me) “If the media companies can say ‘I know I sold you that, but you can’t play it on a portable device or put it on the Internet’ you’ve turned everything into a rental or a lease.” In other words, when you have to check with an online entity like DECE to see if you “own” something, that entity always has the ability to cancel your “ownership,” and what you really have is a rental.

People are starting to get wise to the ways that DRM restricts your ability to use content you’ve purchased. They’re also starting to feel the pain of potentially losing access to that media when the service they “bought” it from shuts down. Content owners are thus faced with a choice: should they just back away from DRM and let their paying customers use their content how they see fit, or should they try to find ways to make DRM more palatable?

Where does DECE come in?

Enter DECE, a coalition of media-related companies ranging from Best Buy to Microsoft to Paramount to Philips to the RIAA. According to one of their press releases, DECE members have agreed on a common file format, vendor selection for the a “Digital Rights Locker,” (DRL) and five approved DRM solutions. The DRL will be a Internet-based authentication service that allows DECE licensees to check what content you’ve “purchased” and what rights you have with regard to that content. The ultimate goal – while not completely clear – appears to be to allow consumers to “purchase” content from one source, have that purchase registered with the DRL, and have access to the same content in different approved DRM formats and from different sources without having to purchase it again.

Sounds nice, right? I mean, right now, if I want to buy a DRM-encumbered movie from iTunes and play it on my Sansa portable media player, I’m out of luck. DECE touts that it will make “Buy Once, Play Anywhere” a reality. The problem with this claim is twofold:

Enabling you to do what you already can…

Problem 1: “Buy once, play anywhere” already exists. It’s also called “DRM-free.” For content you can buy without use-limiting technology wrapped around it – for example, MP3s from Amazon.com – you can already put it on whatever device you want and convert it to whatever format you need, without phoning home to a “rights locker” to ask permission. And that’s part of the invidiousness of efforts like DECE: they make it more palatable to do something you don’t want to do in the first place. But as these efforts make DRM more and more consumer-friendly, it really just gets closer and closer to what it’s like to just not have DRM.

The title of this New York Times article illustrates the problem well: “Trying to Add Portability to Movie Files.” In reality, the struggle over DRM is the struggle over how to remove portability from movie files, which are by nature quite easy to move around, without angering consumers so much that they won't buy the product.

It’s “everywhere” we decide you can be…

Problem 2: Between the rights locker and the DRM standards, you should be able to play DECE-licensed content anywhere you want – as long as both the service and the device are DECE-licensed as well. What will a DECE license entail? That’s not clear. But we do have plenty of experience with restrictive, expensive licenses being attached to technologies which are supposed to promote interoperability. Will DECE be any different?

Specifically, what will happen to the smaller innovators who don’t have the vast war chest of Microsoft, or who build open source media software where they cannot and do not desire to control what downstream users of their software do? What about smaller content producers who might not have the cash or don’t want to buy into a system that restricts how their customers use their creations, but want their content to be playable everywhere?

Why stop there? What about the big device producers who haven’t signed on? Notably absent from DECE’s roster is Apple, meaning that the iPhone probably won’t play that content you “bought” to use “anywhere.” And what about the big content producers who want to run their own systems? Also missing from the DECE rolls is Disney, which is offering their own competing service, dubbed “Keychest,” which includes a DRL but does not appear to mandate DRM standards like DECE. Good luck getting your Disney Keychest content to play on your Microsoft DECE-compatible player.

Whither TV Everywhere

You may remember our concerns about TV Everywhere – cable’s initiative to let you watch the content you’ve purchased through them from anywhere you have Internet access. One of our major concerns is that this will discourage or prevent content owners from making their content available online – even for purchase – to people who have cut the cord and don’t have cable or other MVPDs. It now looks like cable companies may use DECE to power TV Everywhere’s authentication. If content producers are using DECE to verify that customers have paid for content – in this case, through their cable company or other MVPD – are they even less likely to sell their content directly to those who have opted out of their local cable monopoly?

The Bright Side?

Of course, in a world where consumers are going to have to navigate DRM, at least for the foreseeable future, there are potential benefits to a system like DECE. As I noted above, DRM content paid for today can generally be played only on a limited number of devices. Expanding the number of usable devices and compatible sources would no doubt ease some of the pain of DRM. With a standardized system in place, more content delivery companies might be able to participate in the TV Everywhere world, loosening the stranglehold MVPDs could potentially gain over certain content.

But the question remains: Is it worth putting so many resources into developing a less painful pill when we’re not sick in the first place?