Coral Consortium: Can't all our DRM systems just get along?


Fremont (CA) - The keyword that has been thrown at us for well over the last decade has been convergence, as if the key to unifying all media is for engineers to produce a single device that can play everything - audio, video, and interactive media. How well we have learned in recent years that interoperable media requires so much more than a single converged box - despite the fact that companies are gearing up today to market devices that would purport to be precisely that kind of magic box.

Recent experience with the waning popularity of the audio compact disc has taught us that people don't particularly want a single box, a one-size-fits-all solution, for the music or video that people want to be able to partake in just to get through their day. Note, for example, the popularity of an entire industry devoted to the experience of moving content off compact discs and DVDs. Computing has introduced the world to the concept that content can, and should, be portable by design. But with infinite portability comes a problem: The manufacturers of content too easily lose control of their distribution channels. With compact disc, prior to the rise of CD-ROM, distribution control was not a problem; you played your songs on the medium you purchased them on. The distribution channel was secure.

When the content production industry learned at the turn of the decade that millions would be willing to use unauthorized means to be able to make their digital content portable, even if it meant acquiring it in an unlicensed fashion in the first place, the first initiative among publishers was to try to re-secure their distribution channel, whether with new laws, new technologies, or both. But consumers took to these new technologies the way Gen. Patton took to "fixed fortifications;" and publishers worldwide have largely failed to codify their unalienable rights to produce their material on a disc and keep it there. So the first counter-offensive largely failed.

For a great many consumers, their first direct personal contact with digital rights management has been with learning how the songs they download from iTunes and other services won't play in common media players, and can't be burned to CD the way a normal MP3 file can. Jack Lacey, who is in the business of working with DRM systems as president of the Coral Consortium, found himself last Christmas discovering consumers' dilemma himself, all over again. "My kids - who are members of Napster - got iPods for Christmas," he related to TG Daily. "And they said, "Now we're going to go get all our Napster content and put it on the iPod." And I said, 'Hold on there, it's not going to happen.' And there was no peace in the household that morning."

Lacey leads a group of 40 companies, most of whom are content producers, others who are CE manufacturers, in an effort to develop an industry-wide protocol that would resolve his kids' Christmas dilemma. The fact that content purchased through one download service, and intended to be used on a narrow range of MP3 players and PC media players, cannot be played on other MP3 players and PC media players and digital devices - nor, in many cases, burned to an audio CD that can be played in the car - may be slowing consumer adoption of digital entertainment. Why buy a song, a consumer may think, that you can only hear from one place?

Digital rights management determines what songs can be heard in what places; and for many consumers, the solution to the ubiquity problem would be to eliminate DRM from the equation. Lacey and his Coral Consortium propose another solution: Create a kind of electronic broker among DRM systems, which Coral calls a rights mediator, that can determine whether a user is authorized to own a track in the first place, then transfer not only the rights but also the content itself to any other system to which that user is entitled access. So a fairly purchased iTunes song, theoretically, could at least be transferred to play through, say, Windows Media Player without a sophisticated codec transplant in Windows.

"I think one of the things that really is on people's minds right now," Lacey told us, "is that, consumers are confused about all this stuff. It's not a good thing." It's confusion among customers, Lacey argued, that is driving consumers toward unlicensed MP3s, and more and more, unlicensed video. "It's a little harder to get free video but not much," he said. "Bandwidth is improving, memory is improving, everything is moving in the direction that's going to have the video situation in the same place as audio was in five years ago."