As far back as the late 1970s, long before the digital revolution, there were various technologies available that were meant to control the illegal use of music and video content. Some were designed to stop copying, some were focused on providing forensic information (i.e. not meant to stop illegal use through technology per se, but to allow such usage to be monitored so that offenders could be identified and prosecuted). None of these were particularly successful.
There were a number of reasons for their failure. From the artist’s point of view, there were concerns about the sonic or visual artifacts in program material and the resulting compromise in quality. From the consumer’s point of view, there was resentment about the prevention of copying for personal use, especially given the price of the product. This was the “fair use” legal argument that came about after WW II with the advent of personal recording devices. But even through the fifties reel-to-reel recording devices were cost prohibitive for the average consumer, so home recording did not really take hold until the 8-track cartridge and cassette appeared on the scene. In the end, the content owners pretty much conceded that the degree of alienation generated by their position on copy control was not worth what they might gain even if these technologies really worked well, which they often did not.
Now fast forward (soon to be expressed as skip to the next index point) and we arrive at the introduction of the Compact Disc in the early ’80s and the Digital Revolution in the Recording Industry. As might be expected, the Recording Industry was eager to re-sell its catalogs in the nifty new digital CD format. And indeed their foray into new technology turned out to be hugely profitable. Yet the seeds of their own downfall had been planted….they had been offered and had accepted a digital version of the Trojan Horse. While In the ’80s Compact Discs could only be played on dedicated players, by the early ’90s computers with CD ROM drives that could also play them started to appear.
This was the game changer. It allowed the personal computer owner/ music consumer to distil the raw audio data on the CD into a perfect file copy. Now for all intents and purposes there was no such thing as deterioration of quality from serial copying as in the analog domain. Now there was no limitation (since entertainment content had become merely data) as to how far and how fast it could be moved (over the Internet). Nor was there any way to control how it was used. This, as we have seen, was a very bad thing for the Recording Industry. And the Motion Picture Industry technologists were savvy enough even then to realize that they were soon to be in the same boat. They knew they were only temporarily protected by the greater size of digital video files VS audio files and the resulting increased coefficient of difficulty in manipulating and moving them. Clearly there was a need to control/track the usage of entertainment assets, and the solution had to be found… fast.
Now we pick up the story in real time. The group of technologies called Digital Rights Management (systems) or DRM has been around since the mid to late nineties. DRM is pretty much an all-inclusive definition for any technology that is meant to control or track the use of copyrighted assets in the digital domain. Initially, it was thought that copying could be controlled by inserting a “marker” of some sort in a channel not containing but associated with the actual content (thus avoiding altogether any quality questions). It could then be recognized by hardware, which would in turn copy or not according to preset rules. This type of double-ended system required cooperation from a lot of different groups with competing interests and thus (not surprisingly) didn’t work. Device manufacturers had little appetite to add the additional circuitry to their products (which was costly and degraded battery life) and which prevented their customers from doing what they wanted to do.
At this juncture “watermarking” came to the fore. It was a way of uniquely marking a piece of content so that its use, legitimate or illegal could then be monitored. This required “sniffing” of Internet backbones and reporting of activity by companies that specialized in providing such forensic service. A good part of this work is now done through the use of another technology called “fingerprinting”. It involves creating a database from parts of the program material that are relatively easy to “automatically” identify using available algorithms. This is presently a relatively successful business. The problem (given the nature of the Internet) then becomes one of enforcement after the identification of illegal usage. This often hinges on the interpretation of international treaties, corruption of government officials and other weighty issues that are far beyond mere technological solutions.
There is some good news. A few non consumer-targeted areas where DRM has been used quite successfully do exist. They are: first, in controlling illegal usage resulting from “leaking” of pre-release content meant for review or promotion. This involves watermarking (or using some other unique identifier) that is tied invisibly or inaudibly to a particular piece of content and also to a specific “first user.” Once this has been done, the threat of very unpleasant consequences for any unauthorized use of a particular “first user’s” content provides a significant deterrent to illegal behavior. Second: going beyond serializing/identifying only pre-release copies to using the same process for prints (or digital deliveries) for exhibitors. This has resulted in the apprehension of well-organized “pirating” groups who bootleg a copy off a theater screen (which screen can then be revealed by the watermark) and then either upload or manufacture physical media, or both. Once the vulnerable screen has been identified, MPAA agents can increase methods of physical surveillance and apprehend the “pirate.”
Today, moving beyond authorized “sniffing” by third party providers, some Internet service providers and equipment manufacturers are exploring a tiered technical approach whereby they can “sniff” data-packet traffic for potential patterns of abuse. When these packet signatures are detected a secondary form of testing such as fingerprint or watermark detection can be applied. Additionally, DRM systems can be and are being used to manage legitimate internet commerce. For instance, in the sale of encrypted media files acquired by a consumer from a Website a separate “key” is required to unlock the file before the content can be played. Thus the media file is downloadable for free, but the content owner is then compensated when the consumer purchases the key, though the sequence of events is not always in this order. Third party service providers are often used to confirm payment to the content owner.
Even considering all these advances, the challenge of “commercializing” any type of DRM system in the age of the Internet, i.e. going beyond somehow connecting a limited number of unique pieces of content to unique users (or at least a limited number of users) and into the brave new world of millions of file-sharers worldwide remains formidable. It is further complicated by that “Internet ethos” that rationalizes “everything up here is available and available for free.” The French Government, to its credit, has decided to try some re-education. Their Parliament recently passed a tough anti-piracy law that says if you download pirated movies “frequently” you can: a) lose your Internet connection, b) be fined up to $500,000, or c) go to jail. It remains to be seen how strong a deterrent this proves to be. A little more good news: there are other quite technologically advanced applications being made in this area that would require another separate editorial, perhaps called “DRM & Internet Commerce.”
Iron Mountain Entertainment Services recognizes the need for Digital Rights Management in the new worldwide electronic marketplace. We view our job as partnering with our clients to help them manage their entertainment assets. We consider the protection of the intellectual property of “creators” essential, so that there will remain an incentive to create. And we believe that the “behind the scenes” worker in Hollywood, i.e. the little guy, has a right to be protected against illegal practices that really do threaten his livelihood just as the workers in any other industry in this country.
As we are often the first link in the digital production chain for the large volume of content being re-released today, we are continually investigating available DRM technologies that could be utilized by our clients in our studio facilities should they so desire.
Your thoughts and comments are always welcome.