[Revised August 29, 2010 to reflect additional poll results. The poll is now closed.]
Thanks to all who voted in the recent poll on why the United States is lagging in research in rights technologies — not just DRM, but also content identification, licensing automation, and so on — compared to other countries.
The results so far are in line with what many rights technology vendors have known for years: there’s no money in it. The most popular response: “Limited commercialization opportunities.” If you add to this the respondents who chose “No money available from grant sources,” you get a total of 41%. The “Researchers find the topic distasteful” response polled just 12%. I would have expected higher, but those researchers who don’t like the idea of rights technologies might not be reading this in the first place.
There was also some ambiguity — or difference of opinion, perhaps — over what qualifies as R&D: 24% responded “R&D is still happening in the US, just not being published in scientific journals.”
My reasoning on this point is as follows: Rights technologies have various problems today; we needn’t enumerate or dwell on them here. Some claim that the problems are unsolvable, so why bother trying. To me, that’s a disingenuous rationalization — or put more plainly, a cop-out. We take countless technologies for granted today that were deemed “impossible” not too long ago — cheap speech recognition, just as one example. If people see a light at the end of the research tunnel, they’ll find resources to solve problems. And admittedly, some technical problems get asymptotically closer to solutions without actually being solved — music recommendation and highly targeted contextual advertising, say — but certainly not for lack of trying, because someone sees opportunity in it.
Solving problems calls for fundamental research, the kind with longer-term impact. Most of the “R&D” done by corporations or consortia is designed to meet short-term or tactical market needs and thus does not qualify under my definition of research. (Yes, there are exceptions; for example Intertrust, owned by Sony and Philips, does research — and publishes some of it in respected journals.) And many of the problems that people cite about rights technologies are best solved by seeking entirely new approaches rather than tweaking existing ones.
All this is a long way of asserting that the best place to look for research output is scientific journals, which best represent research done with a longer view — and happen to be publicly visible. (Conversely, patents are publicly visible but, in my opinion, a poor indication of actual research output.)
But in any case, the answer is clear: in the United States and elsewhere, there’s no money to do research, and no money at the end of the pipeline for the research that gets done. There’s the problem in a nutshell.
This leads us to another interesting wrinkle to the Rights Technologies R&D Index that I charted a few weeks ago. Notice that the countries with the biggest relative R&D output are “device maker” countries like Taiwan, China, and Korea. Spain is another country with a high R&D Index, mainly because of an active research group at the Universitat de Catalunya in Barcelona and the presence of the global telecommunications powerhouse Telefonica. In contrast, “content producer” countries like the US, UK, Germany, and France have low R&D index numbers. Japan, with strong activities in both camps, is accordingly in the middle.
What’s happening is clear, and it’s the same old story: content owners require DRM and other rights technologies; device makers pay for them. The economic incentives are out of balance.
Let’s face it: money does drive research. (My own graduate-level research in the late 1980s was partially funded by Strategic Defense Initiative money, and some who dipped into that river of cash did tend to skew their personal principles to get it.) Researchers in countries like China , Taiwan, and Korea get funding and/or job offers from the major consumer device makers there; or they launch entrepreneurial ventures that partner with or are acquired by those companies.
If anyone wants to fix fundamental problems with rights technologies, then here’s more evidence of the answer: those who want it should fund its development.