DRM-free or not DRM-free?


Barcelona, Spain -- The digital rights management debate moved to the mobile space Tuesday as delegates at the GSMA Mobile World Congress heard a RealNetworks senior executive call for DRM-free music to be made more widely available.

While all four major labels have experimented with DRM-free music online, most mobile downloads still come with some form of the technology.

"DRM remains important for subscription models, but the issue is when you buy (an a la carte) track from Verizon or Vodafone it's very difficult to get it to play on something else," Larry Moores, senior vp global product management at Real, said during the "Fight for the Right to Make Money" panel. "If you want to fully enjoy the experience (of that track), you have to buy it three times. Well, the market's voted (against that) by stealing music."

However, Brian Levy, vp and chief technology officer for communications, media and entertainment at Hewlett-Packard, said going completely DRM-free would be "an over-reaction" and said technology firms should work with music companies to come up with a solution.

"We as an industry haven't developed formats that are transferable between networks," he said, "We've made a world of complexity and then say we want the people who create the content to take the risk (by getting rid of DRM). It's our job to make this insanely simple."

Levy predicted that the model of locking in users to one device eventually will prove "unsustainable."

"DRM-free is only an interim solution," he said.

"The problem should have been solved last year," Moores said. "But it's a business problem, not a technology one. DRM-free content is an ongoing experiment, and the expectation is that (sales) volume is going to increase and start mitigating for declining physical sales. If that isn't occurring a year from now and free sharing of music is running rampant, DRM could come back. The dream won't happen unless we generate revenue today."

Mobile World Congress continues through Thursday.

Mark Sutherland is Billboard's London bureau chief and global editor.