Just Let Us Play The Movie

Content protection should not make life hard for consumers


The flow of digital entertainment, held to a trickle for years by Hollywood's reluctance to make content available, is rapidly becoming a flood. But all this new content, from TV shows on iPods to movies on a new generation of high-definition DVDs, has something in common: tough measures to restrict or prevent copying.

The movie industry is united in its determination to avoid the mistake of record companies, which issued music in unprotected digital form -- audio CDs -- for 20 years, then watched as uncontrolled file sharing wrecked their business model. The technology to control copying, known as digital rights management (DRM), exists and, if handled carefully, can protect the interests of both content owners and consumers. But the chances that it will be implemented in a way that considers consumers' needs are slim.

The recent fiasco involving copy-protected CDs from Sony BMG Music Entertainment showed how casually the industry can trample over customers. Playing the disks on a PC required installing a program that every security company classified as spyware and that rendered computers on which it was installed vulnerable to third-party attacks. Sony BMG now faces a consumer revolt and a slew of lawsuits.

THE SONY BMG AFFAIR is a model of how not to implement DRM. The company made three fundamental mistakes: It was sneaky, relying on the fine print of an end-user license agreement on the screen to list various important restrictions. (These included a bizarre condition that prohibited playing the music if you had filed for bankruptcy.) Sony also added features not needed for the DRM to work -- one of which secretly sent information back to Sony BMG. And the company made no attempt to comply with any sort of industry standard, bypassing scrutiny that might have brought the flaws to light and requiring the consumer to install DRM software just to play a specific CD.

This was an extreme case of DRM gone bad. The much larger challenge facing consumers as digital media proliferates is system incompatibility: the scourge that limits which hardware and software you can use to play what content. Consider the TV shows available for $1.99 from Apple's (AAPL ) iTunes Music Store. These are protected by Apple's FairPlay DRM and can only be watched on an iPod or on a Mac or Windows PC with Apple's iTunes player.

Let's say you have a Windows Media Center PC linked to your TV, with some episodes of Desperate Housewives stored on the hard drive. Because iTunes won't work through the Media Center software, you'll have to switch the Media Center to regular Windows mode and trade your remote for a mouse to see the shows. Even so, you're better off than a Mac owner who wants to download a show from Movielink: The service's DRM software works only on Windows PCs.

Situations like this, together with the Sony BMG mess, have given the whole concept of DRM a bad name. To win public acceptance, the industries involved -- content, information technology, and consumer electronics -- are going to have to put maneuvering for advantage aside and stick to clear, consumer-first goals. Above all, users should not have to notice the existence of the particular DRM as long as they abide by clearly stated copying limitations. Digital content should use standard DRM technology built into players such as iTunes and Windows Media Player. And any content should play on any device that can physically display it, without regard to operating system.

The entertainment industry has a great opportunity for new markets, and the PC and consumer-electronics industries have an opening for new products. But realizing this potential will require all of them to show some respect for their customers.

For past columns and online-only reviews, go to Tech Maven at www.businessweek.com/technology/wildstrom.htm

By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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