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Digital Rights Management: a U.K. Point-of-view

Digital Rights Management: a U.K. Point-of-view

Over the last year, I have spent increasingly more time talking and thinking about digital rights management, or DRM. In the simplest terms, DRM technologies exist to protect content. They provide a higher level of security than RTMPe or HLS encryption and are mandated by content creators who license their programming to third-party distributors.

The major players in the DRM world also happen to be major players in the general technology space; for instance, Google offers Widevine, Microsoft sells PlayReady and Adobe has its Access product. There also is an open standards solution, Marlin, from MDC.

In my days at U.K. broadcaster Channel 4, the only acceptable content protection solution was Microsoft Windows DRM. Today, the market has evolved exponentially and content-licensing contracts stipulate the need for "industry-standard DRM technologies." These contracts often name-check Widevine, PlayReady, Access and Marlin as the preferred technologies.

So why am I spending so much time thinking about DRM?

In the U.K. and in Europe, broad support for multiple DRM technologies has become table stakes in the high-end media market. If you are distributing premium video content over the Internet, then 9.9 times out of 10, you are going to need some kind of DRM capability. Furthermore, all of the indications coming from across the pond in the U.S. are that DRM requirements are only set to increase. This matters to consumers in the U.K. because--as fans of popular U.S. series such as CSI or Homeland--U.K. viewers will only be able to watch episodes online if the video is protected by one of the DRM technologies listed above.

U.S. broadcasters also believe that it is only a matter of time before they will also be required to use DRM within the U.S. We are already seeing the U.S. movie studios move toward the common file format (which requires all five UltraViolet DRMs). To me, this demonstrates that they believe they are on the right track with DRM and thus will be pushing for increased adoption.

Many articles have been written on whether DRM is a necessary evil. My thoughts on this are somewhere between the pragmatic (e.g., most farmers put their cows in fields with fences) and the anarchic (e.g., people should be able to watch what they want, where they want, when they want--as opposed to when a lawyer in Burbank says they can).

Either way, DRM is a requirement right now and nothing short of a seismic shift in the way that premium programming is made--and more importantly, paid for--is going to change that. But, the DRM technology a distributor selects will depend on which platforms they are trying to reach. And this is where it really starts to get interesting.

The most important platforms right now are iOS and Android. In many respects, the Web, as defined by access to services using a desktop or laptop computer, is becoming irrelevant. Growth is coming from mobile tablets and smartphones. The move to mobile has happened at a speed beyond anything predicted. In late 2011, IDC released data indicating that mobile consumption of video content would overtake desktop video consumption by 2015. With the present rate of adoption, it appears that particular statistic could end up being two years out-of-date.

With this combined proliferation of mobile and consumers' desire to watch premium content on a multitude of devices, DRM technology will only continue to grow in importance. Ultimately, DRM should be all but invisible to the consumer. It shouldn't interfere with their viewing experience and, ideally, shouldn't require them to do anything different when they access a service. From the distributors' point-of-view, a good DRM solution will be secure and work across as many devices as possible. Most of the Brightcove customers I speak to who require DRM dream of a world where there is a universal DRM solution as opposed to the fragmented landscape that exists today. At this juncture, however, a singular DRM ecosystem will not become a reality any time soon.

In summary, I believe that time spent thinking about a world where DRM isn't required is time wasted, and that further standardisation around a smaller number of DRM technologies would be a good thing.