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Here's locking down you, kid - MS hawks vision of DRM future

Catalyzes recurring revenue model, it says here

Microsoft has taken the wraps off its next generation Digital Rights Management software, designed to allow digital music and video to get into consumers' hands without actually escaping. The technology previously known as Janus "will make new scenarios possible, such as protecting, delivering and playing subscription-based or on-demand digital music and video," and this will cover "Windows-based PCs and devices, including portable audio devices, Portable Media Centers, cellular phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs) such as Windows Mobile-based Pocket PCs and Smartphones, and networked devices connected within the home, including those that connect over a wireless network."

Translation: the technology will act as a facilitator for companies selling 'all you can eat for a monthly fee', restrictive licenses whereby playback is time- or number of plays-limited, and it will allow these services to be sold on a multitude of devices. It will allow you to play the stuff you bought on all sorts of devices connected to your home network, so long as you have obtained the necessary licences to play the stuff at that particular time, on that particular device. 'Your' rights to do this will be managed by the Windows DRM licence management software you bought in order to make it safe for the content companies to sell you all this stuff.

You may have spotted that, as it's already perfectly feasible to rip all of your CDs to MP3s, shove them onto your portable music player and stream them around the home, this might not entirely be a solution to your digital entertainment problems. But granted, if from your perspective it's a good deal to pay a monthly fee in order to be able to listen to a big pile of music, then having the ability to listen to it on a portable player might be helpful. Otherwise, in the secure DRMed future you'll do well to keep questioning who exactly it is that 'your' hardware is working for.

Janus was the Roman god of doors, and had two faces. We seem to recall he had some brief for spies as well, but the two faces will suffice for our purposes today. Janus here faces two ways, smiling warmly and solicitously at the content owners and vendors, and somewhat less convincingly at the consumer. Under these circumstances you might well expect Microsoft's announcement to be two-faced. And you would not be disappointed; a clutch of eager rentaquotes from the business just can't help telling us what it means for them, and for us.

Here, for example, is AOL VP Alex Blum: "Consumers are embracing online music with a passion [indeed...] ... Our goal has always been to offer music fans the widest range of options to experience leading content in the highest quality possible. Microsoft's latest version of Windows Media DRM will help us continue to take legitimate digital music offerings, particularly for our rapidly growing broadband audience, to the next level, ultimately meeting the consumer's goal of taking purchased or rented digital songs, games and movies with them wherever they want, on any device."

Have you noticed how the word "legitimate" is becoming content industry code for "restricted"? But here, note that the consumer's goal of taking stuff they've bought "wherever they want" is something that Microsoft's new DRM will "ultimately" allow. And you can read into it the music industry's goal of policing what the consumer can and cannot do with "purchased" content.

"This is a positive development in the continuing effort to provide consumers with more choices for enjoying legitimate entertainment content on emerging digital platforms," Disney senior VP Bob Lambert tells us. "Consumers, content companies and technology companies stand to benefit as content continues to migrate from analog to digital devices, and Microsoft's ongoing commitment to create robust, flexible and secure media technology will help facilitate these new experiences and business initiatives."

There's that word again. And a couple more. The "emerging digital platforms" have already to some considerable extent emerged, but regrettably have not emerged in a particularly secured form yet. The migration from analogue to digital will be particularly beneficial where the digital device uses Microsoft technology to police its analog output, because then it won't be possible to circumvent the DRM by simply recording its output. New "business initiatives" will give consumers many more opportunities to pay for stuff.

"The next generation of Windows Media DRM breaks new ground for music and video services so they can offer consumers more choices and an even better experience when buying, renting or previewing premium content," says Amir Majidimehr, MS corporate VP of DRM. "Imagine paying a low monthly fee to fill your portable music player with thousands of songs, or renting a dozen movies to take with you on a Portable Media Center when you go on holiday, perhaps watching them as you sit on the plane, or letting your kids watch them in the back seat of the car."

Go ahead, imagine. Imagine at the same time a world where the flexibility of being able to buy a CD then play it where you like had been finally stamped out, where it was becoming 'illegitimate' to let your friends hear stuff you think they might be interested in, and where 'home taping' was getting progressively harder. And imagine a world where there was no online equivalent of the 'buy, rip, play where you like' model that's currently available to you. And sure, in that world people won't be able to grab whatever they want without paying for it from filesharing networks. Clearly, the advent of digital content does mean that the previous models have to change*, but the point of DRM is that it enables a New World Order where the content companies can impose a significantly more restrictive regime on consumers without negotiation.

But let's have some more about how good this will be for you from Roxio CEO Chris Gorog: "This improved Windows Media DRM opens the door for Napster subscribers to increase their value by putting the music they've paid for through their subscription onto their digital players without having to pay again for each song," (i.e. it's another nail in the coffin of the CD model). "Microsoft's technology might be the biggest step forward in the fight against digital piracy and should catalyze the recurring revenue model for record labels and artists." There's another good one: "catalyze the recurring revenue model".

If you currently have no wish to catalyse the recurring revenue model, then it would seem to make sense for you to restrict your purchases of content to scenarios where you are definitely purchasing the content, and not merely purchasing a restrictive licence to that content. And you'd do well to keep a lookout for playback devices that say they can manage your rights. Ask yourself what they're going to manage to do to your rights. ®

* There are however other options for change. An excerpt from Lawarence Lessig's book Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity, published recently in Wired, makes it clear that the content industry isn't on anything like as secure ground as it would have us believe.

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