A week in DRM wonderland

Digital Rights Management (DRM) is a key issue on the emerging web; how will the benefits of free flowing data be balanced by the commercial interests of content creators or the corporations that own their content? The past week has seen constant flow of important developments in DRM, some of them quite strange.

While I try to be understanding of the importance of rights protection (splogs scraping this site drive me nuts, for example) I lean towards disapproving of DRM as it’s been developed in most cases. The simplest argument is that when I buy a file, I should be able to play it on any device I own. How can I be kept from making copies and driving the price down to zero? I don’t know. More ephemeral arguments concern the need for the content industry to come up with a more compelling business model than false scarcity enforced through coercion and the importance of openness is fostering innovation and collaboration. The other side of the argument has its compelling points as well, however, and few people probably consider it an open and shut case.

The following are some of the top stories emerging in regards to DRM right now. Precedents are being set, new technologies are being launched and key partnerships are being announced. It’s an interesting time to watch DRM news with an eye to the future.

Yahoo! and Disney to sell an entire album MP3 free.
After selling a Jessica Simpson single without DRM in July, Yahoo! announced that they will soon sell the entire album from Jesse McCartney titled “Right Where You Want Me” free of DRM restrictions. The album is from Hollywood Records, a Disney owned company. In an article in Variety today, Yahoo! acknowledges that “piracy” is a reality and they appear to be inching themselves into a very interesting experiment.

Zune gets wacky with DRM.
The release of Microsoft’s iPod competitor was closely watched, but it wasn’t until the day after the unveiling that it was discussed that the portable entertainment system will not play files wrapped in Microsoft’s own Windows Media and Audio DRM technology. Users will have to buy files from the Zune Marketplace. Surely consumer patience is going to be tested by this; the huge market share of Windows Media might make an effective standard DRM acceptable for consumers willing to play by the rules as Microsoft defines them – but a fork in the company’s technology that makes legally purchased files unusable on the hot new device feels like betrayal, if not outright theft.

Zune to override Creative Commons licenses.
(Update: ZuneInsider just made a post related to this that says he was wrong when he wrote that this was true.) Also discussed last week was the impact of Zune DRM on files licensed as Creative Commons by creators; the Zune will wrap those files in its own DRM contrary to the rights owners wishes and the explicit conditions of CC liscenses. Those licenses are machine readable, so maybe just maybe Microsoft will respect them. If not then we can say: so much for DRM protecting artists’ interests! For background on how Creative Commons works for artists, see an interview I did several months ago with Creative Commons CTO Mike Linksvayer.

If you can’t beat ’em, C&D ’em.
In other Microsoft news, the company apparently sent out Cease and Desist letters last week to web sites hosting a technology that strips some versions of Microsoft’s Windows Media Audio DRM from files. Called FairUse4WM, the technology was something that Microsoft initially said it wasn’t concerned about because the WMA DRM could be refreshed to disable DRM strippers. Initial attempts to do just that were thwarted by the FairUse4WM team’s one upmanship, though, and so the company apparently had to resort to legal threats. It doesn’t appear to have worked so far as FairUse4WM is still widely available online.

YouTube says it’s got a tool to find copyrighted music in videos. YouTube announced a deal with Warner Music this week that will put Warner owned music videos on the site and allow YouTube users to legally use Warner owned music in their videos for free. One of the least discussed parts of the announcement, though, was a new technology YouTube says it’s developed that will automatically discover copyrighted music used in videos. No details are available yet on how the technology will work, but the company has said it will detect copyrighted music in use, keep track of royalties owed and allow rights holders to veto the use of their music if they so wish. This marks a radical shift away from the “don’t ask/don’t tell” model that YouTube is infamous for and could lead the way for a very different online media landscape.

Napster goes up for sale. The poster child of music downloading in the pre-DRM era, Napster, looks like it’s about to be acquired.

Other DRM stories that are also worth checking out from the past week include: Michael Geist’s 30 Days of DRM, a series of blog posts recommending exceptions and limitations that the government should include if a Canadian DMCA is introduced. Real Networks unveils yet another DRM model, called Rhapsody DNA.