An Interview With DECE/UltraViolet President Mitch Singer Goes Horribly Right

Our readers are probably familiar in passing with UltraViolet, a new content rights management system that is supposed to unify the rights architecture on the web, allowing cross-platform sharing and authentication of movies and TV. But for such a major effort by so many device makers and content producers, very little has been heard or said about it. Probably because it’s still in its infancy: only 19 titles with UV compatibility were released in 2011, and the first signups occurred in October. Yet despite its tender age and low profile, the most common sentiment has been one of preemptive rejection.

And why shouldn’t that be the case? Consumers have been treated like thieves by content companies for years, experimented on with DRM schemes, ripped off with faulty authentication systems, and generally disappointed in the efforts to meet consumer demands. This feeling is premature, however: 2012 will be the year UltraViolet makes its real debut, and it is in 2012 that it will prove itself or fail.

It was with this in mind that we spoke to Mitch Singer, President of DECE (UltraViolet’s creator and controller) and CTO of Sony Pictures, at CES. And believe it or not, he convinced us that UltraViolet may in fact be the beginning of a very good thing.

Watch the whole 15-minute interview here, or skip ahead for discussion:

The point I took away from this talk is that Singer gets it, but is in the unenviable position of having to wrangle reasonable content rights out an industry whose livelihood is in restricting those rights. The entire film industry revolves around the slow unfurling of access: first in theaters, then in physical media, then online, usually, with other media and paths working their way in as well. That won’t change much, and has little to do with UltraViolet; it merely illustrates the fact that the MPAA companies make money by clutching their content tightly and releasing that grip only as quickly and to the extent that is absolutely necessary.

Singer has the advantage that he is originally a content guy. Coming from that side of the equation, you understand the mindset of the people there. Normally content guys’ mission is to fight for greater control, for restrictions in a age of free digital love. But when you see a fellow content industry, like the RIAA, drowning in a sea of missed opportunities, the long-term portion of the mission changes to transformation.

He told me an anecdote off-camera that back in the early 2000s, he was experimenting with the tools pirates were using to rip DVDs and create easily copyable, easily distributed versions of the films his company took so much care to control. He ripped a few and brought his boss down to show him how easy, how versatile, and how inevitable the technology was. His boss said “make it.” UltraViolet, he says, is the result of years of research to essentially make that, but legal.

Valve’s CEO, Gabe Newell, has famously said (as I paraphrase in the interview) that piracy isn’t a security problem, it’s a service problem. What people resent is unreasonable restrictions on their content: buy a disc in the US and it won’t play in the hotel in Tokyo. Buy an episode online, and you can’t lend it to a friend. Rent an episode on your home TV, and you can’t bring it with you on the subway. The solution to all these things is piracy because the content providers don’t provide a solution. UltraViolet is supposed to be that solution. A sort of Steam for movies, though incredibly, Singer hasn’t heard of Valve’s hugely popular platform.

It’s natural enough to doubt that, of course. It’d be ridiculous not to, in fact, in light of the problems I just set forth. I too, will only believe it when I see it. But talking with Singer didn’t fill me with skepticism, it filled me with cautious optimism.

In a nutshell, UltraViolet wants to be the authority any service calls when it wants to know whether you own something or not. And if you own it, you have certain guaranteed rights: watch it on any device, watch it in several places at once, share it with a certain amount of people, and so on. And because your rights are not tied to a service, you’re not tied to that service either. Don’t like their interface, their selection, or their stance on SOPA? Skip out and keep your rights intact. Got some Blu-rays from a while back? Scan them with the UV app and get access to them on the web.

It sounds too ambitious, too good to be true, but that may be a factor more of our justified pessimism as consumers than of the feasibility and reach of this service. Wouldn’t unlimited streaming of millions of songs sound too good to be true a few years ago?

And while there’s plenty of room for skepticism, it must be tempered with realism as well. What if you have a big family and run out of devices to register? What if big movers like Apple won’t play nice? What if you want to run it on non-compatible hardware?

These things are more exceptions than objections to the rule. Consumers buck at unreasonable restrictions, not just restrictions. Restrictions are part of any real system: you don’t get content unless you pay for it in some way or another — is that unreasonable? Even on services like Spotify you have to contribute. Content can’t go on unlimited devices — is that unreasonable? Should you be able to add all 700 of your Facebook friends as people authorized to privately watch the content you bought?

Some restrictions are okay. Make it easy to pay for and consume content and don’t prevent people from doing the things they want to do with it 95% of the time. That’s what Singer says UltraViolet is supposed to do; DRM, Singer said, should be “completely invisible.” It should “enable the consumer to do a whole lot more with the content they’ve acquired.” Ideally, they shouldn’t even have to interact with UltraViolet except to configure it once and add movies as they buy them, a process that will likely be largely performed by services. If it fails, it will fail because of forces outside its control: content companies unwilling to authorize certain rights, most likely. These are the people who make the unreasonable restrictions consumers hate.

Information, they say, wants to be free. But goods don’t. And when information costs money, it becomes a good. This is simply part of how economies work. Goods must be paid for, and part of this payment system must be reasonable restrictions. The first step in establishing reasonable restrictions is to have a reasonable person making them. Mitch Singer strikes me as a reasonable person. The industry he is attempting to coax into submission to this new system is not reasonable, and so we have grown to distrust it. Over the next few years, we may find that distrust further justified, or no longer required. 2012 will welcome many titles and many users into the UltraViolet fold. Over the next year we will see if the system DECE has created will enable more than it restricts.