2009 Year in Review, Part 1

2009 was a year of virtual stagnation in the progress of many technologies for managing copyright.  To see this, we can look at developments (or lack thereof) in four areas: home media networks, online content licensing frameworks, content identification technologies, and “classic” DRM.

Let’s look at the last of these first: there were virtually no new developments in DRM technologies this past year.  The music industry abandoned DRM for permanent Internet downloads almost a year ago, when the major music companies capitulated to Apple on DRM in exchange for variable track pricing.  The majors have hoped to hold onto DRM for mobile downloads.  But the simple permanent-download model is not very popular in the mobile arena, and the boundaries between Internet and mobile are growing blurrier and blurrier; so it shouldn’t be long until wireless carriers begin offering piecemeal permanent downloads without DRM.

DRM has remained in two types of music services: subscription downloads with portable device transfer (Rhapsody, Napster) and mobile services with music subsidized by handset makers (Nokia’s Comes With Music, Sony Ericsson’s Play Now Plus).  A third type of DRM-protected music service required users to watch ads periodically to maintain access to their free music files.  Of the two most talked-about examples of this type of service, SpiralFrog ceased operations while QTrax seems to be in permanent “vamp ’til ready” pre-launch mode. 

DRM will remain in 2010 for the above types of services.  New models may launch that also depend on DRM.  All of these will compete with on-demand streaming services such as Spotify and MOG All Access; yet the on-demand streaming space is bound to consolidate as price competition forces many of these services out of business. 

Streaming is also a threat to download models in the video space, as Hulu continues to make inroads against iTunes and many of the other online video services.  The online video download market continues to be tiny, due in part to bandwidth constraints (for films) and consumers’ lack of interest in permanent ownership (of TV shows). 

Apple still uses its FairPlay DRM for video content, while other services like blockbuster.com and most adult entertainment sites use Windows Media DRM — a technology that Microsoft is phasing out in favor of its newer DRM, PlayReady. 

PlayReady is the DRM component of Microsoft’s Silverlight environment for browser-based rich media applications, and as such its use is growing (e.g. Netflix).  But its original intended use as a mobile DRM platform seems stalled. Microsoft hasn’t issued any PlayReady-related press releases since April 2009; the major device-subsidized music platforms are using Windows Media DRM and OMA DRM; and mobile video downloads are virtually nonexistent.

The area of the video market that many agree is ripe for growith is in home media networks.  This has admittedly been the case for the past few years; the consumer electronics industry views home media networks as the next big green field for new products.  Yet developments during 2009 have shown more fragmentation rather than growth. 

The movie industry had been coalescing around a standard called DECE (Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem), which was announced two years ago.  DECE is a “rights locker” model that will allow users to purchase rights to download a given piece of content, such as a movie, in the formats of their choice.  Yet 2009 came and went without any major developments around DECE.  Furthermore, Disney opted to break away from the studio pack and announce its own home media interoperability initiative, Keychest, which is a cloud-based streaming model rather than a download model, yet one that still involves user and device authentication.  Keychest and DECE are actually more complementary than competitive, but many in the industry see them as a burgeoning “format war.” 

To make matters more confusing, CinemaNow announced that it is partnering with Best Buy (the largest “pure play” consumer electronics retailer in the United States) to deliver content into its own home media network ecosystem, which is based on the Widevine DRM.  And Amazon has been, rather quietly, adding rights locker features to its Video On Demand service, so that purchasers of certain DVDs and Blu-ray discs can also have on-demand rights to the same content.  All this makes for a chaotic scene leading into the big CES trade show next week.

In contrast, the e-book market is finally settling down into a better place for publishers and consumers.  As far as DRM is concerned, it’s a two-platform market: Amazon and Adobe.   More e-book readers are coming out on the market to compete with Amazon’s Kindle, and two leaders are emerging: the Sony Reader (with two models) and the Barnes and Noble Nook — both based on the Adobe platform. 

The Nook in particular is a savior for Adobe.  Before it — and with the exception of the solid-selling Sony Readers — Adobe appeared to be headed for a position in the e-book market equivalent to Microsoft’s in music: lots of partners, little traction in the market.  But the Nook has two important things going for it: a massive marketing push by the US’s largest book retailer, and a ton of free publicity due to missed ship dates that, ironically, is leading to a public perception of the Nook as a hot, in-demand device.  B&N should bask in the glow of brisk sales after the holiday dust clears. 

Of course, the wild card in the e-book market is Apple.  Both Amazon and Adobe support their formats and DRMs on the iPhone and iPod Touch, but the hype surrounding Apple’s rumored tablet device is deafening.  Meanwhile, consumers ought to be able to look forward to increased interoperability and decreased confusion — as well as low prices — in the fast-growing e-book market as we head into the new decade.

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