Dueling DRM frameworks prolong high-def confusion

Fremont (CA) - Consumer electronics manufacturers, content providers, and information industry leaders that comprise the Coral Consortium announced they have agreed on the framework for a DRM specification, to be released next month. The spec will enable digital rights management systems in disparate devices to authorize a licensed user to play purchased content on all those devices. It may be the first step toward building a network of multimedia service providers that recognize each other's licenses and each other's devices.

But just one day earlier, the members of the licensing authority for the Advanced Access Content System (AACS) - some of them the very same companies - announced they had finally agreed upon the terms of an interim DRM specification, perhaps within the same timeframe. While AACS LA promoted their own agreement as "designed to create unprecedented flexibility, portability and security for entertainment content to be enjoyed on networked home, portable PC or CE devices," some questions are beginning to emerge regarding whether AACS intends to take Coral's call for interoperability seriously.

The first sign of genuine discord emerged last weekend, by way of news about a possible delay of Sony's PlayStation 3 game console. A Merrill Lynch analyst in Japan reported that Sony may have lodged complaints about the outcome of AACS negotiations, which impact their upcoming Blu-ray disc players. Like its rival format, HD DVD, Blu-ray will utilize AACS as a key part of its DRM scheme; and Blu-ray players will be a principal feature of the PS3. Sony is perhaps the highest-profile member of both AACS and Coral camps, as a co-founder of AACS LA and a "promoter member" of the Coral Consortium (Warner is also a co-founder of AACS, but a "contributor member" of Coral).

If Sony did, as the Merrill Lynch analyst suggested, raise objections to the AACS agreement, the subject of those objections may concern how the DRM schemes for 1) Blu-ray Disc players, 2) portable player devices, and 3) media center PCs to which BD players may be attached, can be made interoperable. Sony has an interest in all three classes of components, and would probably be embarrassed to find itself in a situation where content native to one class was inoperable in the other two.

While both AACS and Coral praise the scope of their respective agreements, neither camp is yet free to publicly reveal just what it is their members have agreed upon, although Coral is perhaps more open about its own objectives.

Recognizing that a content component acquired from a licensed disc or a handheld device may not immediately be playable on a media center PC, for instance, the Coral framework would create a joint licensing provision: a way for so-called rights mediators to electronically negotiate with one another, not only to recognize a valid license for content from a non-native device, but to set up foreign devices so they can play converted forms of non-native content. Movies or audio tracks purchased on next-generation optical discs or downloaded through services such as Apple's iTunes, may need such a provisioning system in order for them to be legally transferred to a media center PC, and enrolled in a user's licensed media library.

Technically, AACS should be able to provide exactly the technology required to facilitate these rights mediators. But the question of who runs the mediation bodies themselves has apparently been a matter of contention, as studios including Warner have asserted their rights to decide how their content is utilized. One provision of AACS called mandatory managed copy (MMC) has been debated to such an extent that the conflicting sides in the argument actually define the term differently from one another.

As the studios see it, MMC would enable AACS-endowed devices, through their connection to the Internet, to determine the full extent of provisions concerning how users of content can make licensed copies of that content. In the AACS scheme, the counterpart to Coral's rights mediator is called the Clearing House, and studios had argued that they should have the rights to control that entity; Hewlett-Packard, a founding BDA member that has since declared neutrality in the high-def disc debate, has expressed its opposition to studio control.

Sony is in a unique position, especially from the vantage point of history: It is not only a CE manufacturer but a studio as well (now owning Columbia Pictures, Tri-Star, and MGM), and its interests could arguably be both served and hindered regardless of the outcome of this debate. Even as AACS LA announced its own agreement as virtually the beginning of a new digital era, video industry sources have reported that the AACS members remain at loggerheads over the critical issue of to whom the "mandate" in "mandatory managed copy" refers - the users with rights to make copies, or the studios' rights to say how many and when.

Further muddying the waters in this debate is the matter of an AACS provision called the image constraint token (ICT), which became a heated issue last December. Industry sources are reporting that AACS members have generally agreed to enable ICT to automatically down-convert content encoded in 720p, 1080i, and 1080p resolutions to 540 lines of vertical resolution or lower, when that content is played on analog display devices.

These devices would reportedly include, ironically enough, the first generation of HDTV displays sold in North America, many of which use analog signals. (Standard definition NTSC television in North America has 480 lines of resolution.) Apparently, according to reports, AACS Clearing Houses may be able to set the terms for whether a user, having presented a system with a licensed high-def disc, has the right to play the movie on that disc, using its native resolution, on the player he's currently using. The same AACS that facilitates MMC would also be used for this purpose. So, for example, if you want to bring some of your own movies to your friend's house, and his console doesn't use an HDMI 1.3 connector, you might not be allowed to show your movie on his HDTV at full resolution.

Twentieth-Century Fox, a founding member of the Coral Consortium, and a leading member of the BDA, is not a member of AACS LA. It has expressed its opposition to the use of the ICT in AACS for this purpose. Furthermore, the assumption of a DRM system that's capable of disabling full-quality playback on account of user licensing arrangements, could throw a monkey-wrench into the Coral framework, which may not be set up to handle relative QoS circumstances.

Despite these ongoing disputes, manufacturers and developers for both Blu-ray and HD DVD are going ahead with plans to produce players and content using the interim license agreements that AACS LA is just now making available. This has led many observers to speculate about the possibility that not only will the first generation of players for both formats require substantive upgrades once the technological details are settled upon, but also that the first generation of the discs themselves may not provide the full range of performance characteristics, especially in terms of manageability and functionality. For instance, a first-generation high-def disc may not include the proper coding for its licenses to be recognized by the final AACS, or by whatever interoperable mechanism the members of the Coral Consortium may be able to assemble at this late date.