DRM: Shield Used as Sword?

In the wake of the bizarre Netflix/Qwikster PR circus users are left wondering what is the best way to get the most bang for their content bucks. While television programming, along with movie rentals, is not the most important financial decision out there, it is an area with a number of choices and opportunities to maximize the return on investment.  For content providers and creators, this allows them to bypass the cable companies and target their customers directly.  While this is appealing for consumers, the actual experience is not always as clean: each company is building a silo requiring users to make long-term decisions about their purchases when addressing short-term feelings about what content to enjoy.

Apple and Amazon both offer music in unprotected file formats now, but their video content is as locked down as ever.  Purchases made from the iTunes store can only be played on Apple devices: iPods, iPhones, iPads, and AppleTV, or Macs and PCs using iTunes.  Video content cannot be burned to a DVD for play on a television or re-encoded to fit smaller devices where the video quality may not be as important as the number of videos the device can store in its memory.  These are not major issues, but they require Apple to continue supporting their content in order to enjoy it.  Until the launch of iCloud, re-downloading music and movies from the iTunes store was possible only with a call to customer service.  Thankfully anyone can now look at their purchases and select which songs, movies, television shows, and apps to download for consumption and which to leave in the cloud to be used “on demand.”

Ditto Amazon: only certain, authorized devices can replay their videos.  Until the release of the Kindle Fire, Amazon itself did not have a horse in the race; they were dependent on third parties similar to Google and Google TV – the actual hardware implementing the service was in the hands of other companies.

For rentals, the inability to transfer content from one device to another is not a big deal, but when purchasing digital content, users are left with an uncertainty that their purchase will be consumable in the future.  Amazon says as much in the disclaimer before a purchase is made:

While Amazon calls this a licensing issue, it is one made possible by the inability of users to control the video they have paid for.

While no one expects their VHS tapes or DVDs to play forever, there is an  expectation that if the media isn’t broken, simply inserting it into any VCR or DVD-compatible player should allow the content to be consumed.  Apple and Amazon are large enough that for most consumers this isn’t a concern.  However, there is always the cautionary tale of Microsoft.  The Redmond software maker has had multiple DRM protection schemes, including the unfortunately named PlaysForSure, that have been abandoned for new formats and rendered obsolete despite a lack of flaws in the files themselves.  No longer able to connect with the verification server, these abandoned purchases can become digital junk.

The continuing release of set-top boxes adds another point of connection between consumers and the media they want to access.  But like Charlie Brown, their digital football is seemingly grasped from reach every time. Each box is trying to establish itself as the box to have.  AppleTV, Ruku, the Boxee Box, Google TV – each offers some of what the competitors do but never the full slate of media capabilities.  AppleTV will likely never support an Amazon or Google digital video store and those devices likewise will not offer content from the iTunes store.

Netflix is currently one of the least obtrusive DRM implementations that mainstream customers deal with. Using Netflix streaming requires one thing: a Netflix app.  There are no purchases of movies or television shows, only on-demand streams.  Unlike the pay-per-view options offered by the cable industry, Netflix streaming customers pay a flat rate every month for an all-you-can-eat plan.  The unlimited nature of Netflix means that if five minutes into a movie rental you have to stop watching, there is no need to quickly count how many hours are left for resumption.

The downside of course is that the Netflix library is at least one season behind for television shows still in production and hit or miss on movies.  There are some new releases, some old releases, and some movies that MST3K would have looked at and passed.  However, with the announcement that Netflix will exclusively purchase and broadcast “House of Cards” and now, new episodes of “Arrested Development” this may be changing.   But for $7.99 a month, casual TV watchers, who don’t care about keeping up with the latest episodes of their favorite shows can save a lot compared to the cost of a full-fledged cable package.  Even the cheapest plans offering more than over-the-air channels are likely to start at twice that figure.

While the issue of piracy is more complex than simply stealing vs. buying, this is usually the justification given by content makers and their distributors.  But what is happening is consumers are losing rights over their property.  The right of first sale, which allows for the used goods market, will likely be a relic in a few years.  Digital files don’t age and, while they can become corrupted, backups are relatively easy and cheap enough to prevent a total loss.  As with books, lending of digital movies is not like handing a friend a DVD – as of right now it is not possible to share the movie at all.  This is an important shift in how our culture views property and the rights inherent to it.

Just ten years ago it was possible to pack a bag with books, movies, and video games and head off to another location or let a friend who has not yet read, watched, and played enjoy the haul themselves.  While Apple, Google, and Amazon are concurrently pushing “one person, one device” models, they are also allowing their customers to log on to devices and websites from a remote location and access their file library as though the computer they are using is their own.

Right now, this could go either way: information will be locked down to encourage purchases and prevent anyone who didn’t purchase their own copy from benefiting from digital entertainment.  Or we may see a new world where our libraries are always with us and while it won’t be possible to lend a movie in the same way as a DVD, we could be travelling with hundreds of DVDs, shelves of books, and enough music to drive for hours so long as we have access to an Internet connection.

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