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Digital Hollywood Speakers Say DRM Is Not a Dirty Word

6 May, 2008 By: Chris Tribbey

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — James Burger, an attorney with intellectual property firm Dow Lohnes, has a sense of humor.

He started a seminar on digital rights management (DRM) at the Digital Hollywood conference May 6 by showing a slide asking “Is DRM dead?” while “Taps” played solemnly in the background.

It may have earned a laugh from the crowd, even though nobody believed for a moment the answer was “yes.”

DRM isn't going anywhere, panelists and audience members agreed. It's the only thing keeping video from suffering the same fate as music in the digital world.

“For various reasons, DRM has become a whipping horse, a buzz word,” said Alan Bell, EVP and CTO of Paramount Pictures. “What we're really talking about is digital rights, because fundamentally, content owners are selling I.P. (intellectually property).

“Our business is defined by, and based on, the content we own. If we didn't have DRM, we wouldn't have a business.”

Bell compared studio properties without DRM to Ford lining trucks up on the curb with the keys in the door, or Blockbuster renting out movies without having your credit card on file. Nothing's meant to be for free, and content owners have no choice but to protect what they're selling.

“We have to realize that DRM is just a tool. It's not the only tool; it's one of many,” said Ton Kalker, senior research scientist with Hewlett-Packard. “When someone says DRM is bad, it's nonsensical. Without DRM there wouldn't be any digital subscription models.”

Still, content owners realize that too much DRM hurts their own bottom line. Finding the right DRM fit for products, without infringing on consumers' ability to use those products, is a difficult thing.

“You have to package the rights in a manner for what [consumers] want to do,” Bell said. “If it doesn't match, piracy will fill the void.”

“How do you get consumers happy enough with the bargain proposition for them to do the right thing?” Burger said. “It's a silly term, but it's called ‘BOPA.' Buy once, play anywhere.”

Making sure content fitted with DRM will play on a majority of devices is becoming increasingly difficult, said Robert Shummann, general manager of Dolby Laboratories subsidiary Cinea.

“This is not 10 years ago, where there were just a few devices [that would play video],” he said. “Now, there are hundreds.”

He also suggested that studios lighten up with the DRM on older properties.

“By the time a movie is seven, eight months old, 75% of its value has been reached,” Shummann said. “The idea that you need the same protection on a movie that's five years old compared to one that's just in theaters inherently seems out of place.”

And of course, during any conversation about DRM, the idea of watermarking, tracking a product's movement without restricting the content, comes up.

“It allows you to add a non-restrictive layer to your content, while giving incentive to consumers to not ‘shoplift' the product,” Shummann said.

Yet, for all the negative thoughts that seem to swirl around the idea of DRM — at least from a consumer standpoint — this “necessary evil” has resulted in more content being made available to more aggregators, and hence, more consumers.

“It's been amazing to see studios undergo the shift,” Shummann said. “A few years ago, if you didn't have $300 million, $400 million to dangle in front of them, they wouldn't talk to you.”

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