News Flash: DRM “Standards” Continue to Flounder

by on January 26, 2006

Via IPCentral, there’s an interesting article over at DRM Watch about the development of DRM standards.

The short version is: DRM standards continue to be a disaster. The only “standard” that has gotten any traction is the OMA DRM that’s used to lock content for mobile phones.

It’s not hard to see why mobile phone makers would have an easier time limiting copying than other platforms: mobile phones are proprietary devices on proprietary networks, and consumers use them to consume a small amount of proprietary content. (Amusingly, at one point it looked as though the annual licensing fees for OMA would exceed the value of all content traded using the scheme) The challenges faced by OMA are nothing like the challenges faced by someone distributing a lot of content on an open network like the Internet. OMA has hardly been a roaring success, and other DRM “standards” continue to be dead in the water:

The issue of technology licensing, and fees associated with it, pervades just about every DRM-related standards initiative–so much that it calls the term “standard” into question. Most DRM standards bodies are now really consortia that have IP licensing pools attached to them. Sun Microsystems is attempting to buck this trend with its DReaM Project, which it announced back in September: Sun intends to create an open DRM standard through collaborative community source development that “invents around” the existing patents. We believe this effort to be naive and unrealistic, and we do not expect it to succeed in its proposed form.

For anyone who’s familiar the way real open standards work, that ought to make your skin crawl. Genuine open standards like HTML, PDF, WiFi, etc, are available for anyone to implement, and to freely combine with other technologies to create something new. When I want to design a new web browser, I don’t have to run out and negotiate a licensing agreement with the company that owns the HTML standard. I don’t have to comply with hundreds of pages of detailed regulations before I’m allowed to release my product. And I don’t have to pay anyone royalties. The result of that openness has been a flourishing market for both web servers and web browsers, many of them developed by volunteers. The market would look very different if someone were collecting license fees on every web browser downloaded.

The expectation that “open standards” will be actually open standards not encumbered by restrictive licensing terms and burdensome royalties might be “naive,” but it’s been essential to the rapid growth of the Internet. I think DRM Watch is actually right that Sun is “naive and unrealistic” if it thinks it can develop an “open” DRM standard. But DRM watch seems to think that Sun should instead jump on board one of the more proprietary alternatives.

In contrast, I’m inclined to think that DRM is fundemantally at odds with the open, competitive technological environment from which the Internet emerged. The events of 2005 seem to provide more evidence of that thesis.

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