Studios, techs, retail aim to redefine DRM

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Hollywood is challenging the hegemony of Apple in digital distribution.

A consortium of major studios, leading retailers and consumer-electronics firms — excluding Apple and its key ally Disney — is forming to essentially transform paid downloads into an experience akin to buying DVDs. The goal is letting video purchased at any outlet be played on any device worldwide.

Known as the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem, the consortium unites Warner Bros., Fox, NBC Universal, Sony, Paramount and Comcast with retailer Best Buy along with tech giants Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Cisco, Philips, Toshiba and Verisign. Each company has an invested an unspecified sum in the endeavor.

"When we start to bundle these digital rights together, we believe we can actually develop and deliver a product to the consumer that's better than free," said Mitch Singer, CTO at Sony and the lead architect of DECE.

They are mounting what may be the most radical redefinition yet of digital rights management. In its current form, DRM largely confines content to a limited number of devices depending on the source of that content. For instance, a song purchased from Apple's iTunes Store can be accessed on no more than five different computers and can't be legally played on a portable device beyond the iPod.

If DECE takes hold, it would institute several precedent-setting principles:

> Participating devices and services will be interoperable regardless of differing brands or corporate provenance. A TV episode, for instance, could be just as easily accessed on Microsoft's Zune as it would a Philips broadband-enabled TV set.

> DECE would allow an unlimited number of copies of a video to be created or burned to a disc.

> The consumer would have the option of not storing the copy at all but rather streaming it from a server-based "rights locker" that can be tapped from any location.

Freeing up digital content also would offer a marked distinction from the rights offered by market leader Apple under its Fairplay system. Apple's dominance of the digital marketplace also affords it considerable leverage in licensing negotiations over many of the studios involved in DECE.

"While we haven't yet had conversations with (Apple) about joining, we'd love to have them," said Singer. "We're going in a slightly different direction than Apple by offering more choice in terms of storefront and device."

But DECE is aimed just as much at providing an alternative to piracy as it is competing with Apple. Rampant illegal downloading has long been seen as an outgrowth of today's fragmented digital marketplace, which stymies consumers by requiring content providers to tailor their product for each distributor.

DECE represents yet another ambitious attempt by Hollywood to avoid the fate of the music industry, which largely has dropped DRM altogether. The consortium aims to give digital distribution a shot in the arm. (partialdiff)
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