Lunch & Learn: Content Protection and Digital Rights management: Accessing your Media in the Digital Home with Doug Dixon

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At the November 29 Lunch ‘n Learn, Doug Dixon (Manifest Technology) presented “Content Protection and Digital Rights management: Accessing your Media in the Digital Home.”
Imagine having a comprehensive library of music and movies. And imagine being able to listen to your holdings in your car, when you jog, or while sitting at your computer. And so, you might reasonably expect that buying digital media from Apple, Microsoft, or Sam Goody would contribute to that vision.
To be sure, as content has become digital, consumers are indeed finding it much easier to access such media, but also to copy and share it. In theory, with just a single click, customers could share perfect digital copies worldwide. Upset with rampant piracy, especially given the high value of high definition, digital content, owners are finding new and innovative ways to protect the copyright and intellectual property.


dixon.jpgThe digital formats themselves offer new opportunities to protect their content. In his talk, Dixon reviewed the impact on consumers of new methods of digital rights management. To guard against rampant piracy and to inhibit indiscriminate casual copying, content providers are now using electronic and physical “speed bumps,” essentially making it harder for owners to copy digital content. As a result of these efforts, consumers now face the impact of often obscure policies and content provider’s efforts to encrypt content or to associate innovative access rights.
For example, consumers love the portability of CDs. Playing such media in your computer is indisputably legitimate, but content providers have altered the CD format to make it more difficult to rip the content from the disks to your computer. As a result, some computers won’t read the disks. The disk may appear to be bad/unreadable, or the system software may prevent access to the disk. The reason is that some producers have hacked the format by corrupting the contents of the CD from the computer’s perspective. Their software blocks some playback/copying, effectively preventing the computer from reading the disk while other consumer devices can still read it.
One solution for the consumer is not to use a Windows computer. Or simply use a magic marker (or tape) and draw around the outside of the CD, effectively blocking access to the disk’s directory.
In another attempt, SONY changed data session of CDs to add an autoplay feature to Windows. Like spyware, it monitored consumer behavior and phoned home as well…. It told SONY what disks you were playing and what you were doing on your computer. Dixon explained that consumers can block the autorun feature by pressing the Shift Key or by running MSTweakU software.
If you can’t trust physical media, better perhaps to download electronic media. Again, consumers want to be able to download to portable devices, share, burn, play, stream across a home network, and possibly even access content wirelessly over their phones.
And it often works fine until, suddenly, it stops working. Some tracks can’t be burned, or won’t copy.
Unbeknownst to consumers, much of the electronic content is wrapped with invisible usage limits associated with it. Even within normal usage, sooner or later you may meet such limits. For example, Apple permits you to download, burn, share, transfer to your iPod. Microsoft’s Plays for Sure permits you to download and stream, rent, subscribe.
But behind the curtain, there are a range of issues. With iTunes, you can share and play on up to 5 computers… and burn playlists on CDs 7 times (down recently from 10). You can sync your music with portable players but only those from Apple. And for the moment, you can’t share your electronic music with other network devices in your home…
The music for Microsoft Zune, a generic player, has viral digital rights attached to it. If you send a music file to someone else, they can only play it a total of three times within a period of three days, and then it disappears. This happens to all music you download to your player, even to music that you create yourself!
Dixon suggests that all of these policies unfortunately stand in the way of the consumer dream of a permanent collection of music. And how best to backup in case your machine crashed? How to reconstruct your music library? Or bequeath it to the next generation?
Version 10 of Microsoft Windows player had a mechanism to back up licenses. Version 11 removes that feature. It now becomes your responsibility to keep track of where and under what terms you bought each piece of music.
Dixon also reviewed similar policies with video and concluded with a look ahead to the even more sophisticated digital rights schemes that we are likely to face.
The presentation and a podcast are available.

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