The future of digital media

Leonardo Chiariglione

After decades of investments in R&D, technologies exist today that permit powerful new forms of creation, management, distribution and consumption of intellectual works that would have appeared incredible a few years ago. Right now we should be engaged in discussions about an evolutionary strategy to phase out the old and replace it with the much better new, such is the discontinuity created with the past.

A debate is indeed happening, but a strange one at that. It is not happening on magazines, books, conferences or media in general. It is happening in the courts. These great new digital technologies offer a bright future but a sizeable part of society does not want it, at least, not as it is now.

Communicating one’s thoughts to other people has always been an important function of humans. When different technologies made it possible to extend the reach of one’s message beyond the immediate range of bystanders, hordes of intermediaries stepped in to provide products and services to satisfy a never-ending demand from those who wanted to make their messages known to others who seemed to have an insatiable thirst for new messages. Until yesterday scarcity of distribution means made middlemen thrive.

No longer so. It is not only that people can now do many more things in a much more satisfactory way than they used to, but digital technologies have converted scarcity into abundance. As a result we are confronted with a number of problems. Let’s see two of them.

The first is the fact that the value chains that were created over the last five centuries involving thousands of companies around the world with millions of employees are no longer the right organisational form to do the job they were created for. And the hundreds of millions of consumers who used to rely on those value-chains have now tasted new ways of enjoying content and have no intention of going back.

The second problem is the fact that, no matter how unfit those value chains may be to the new environment, the laws that have been enacted to set the rules of the business still hold. People may enjoy being able to search and find content of their liking on the web but if they download and consume that content without remunerating the rights holders they are abusing works that right holders have been at pains creating and making available for them to enjoy.

But the difficulty today is that, even if a user is willing to remunerate the right holder while retaining the great new features of today’s environment, there is no way to do so. True that you can "buy" music and video online, but usage conditions (including price, but not only) are no match to what freely available content can offer. Some content can only be played on a PC, some others can be moved to other devices, but only to certain classes of them. And, by the way, forget about sharing content. No surprise that under these conditions the amount of usage of that "legitimate" content borders statistical irrelevance.

In the meantime media companies are actively lobbying parliaments in different countries to enact legislation that makes it punishable to perform actions that millions of people do every day to get and use content of their liking in the way they like it. While this is certainly justified by the existence of cases of egregious violations of right holders’ rights, one should not forget that great new user experiences, millions of users have grown accustomed to, are outlawed at the same time, without a legal alternative replacing them.

Less than a year ago these considerations were the basis of an initiative called "Digital Media Manifesto" (DMM) launched with the goal of breaking the "digital media stalemate" described above. In less than 3 months a group of experts from all over the world drafted and published the Manifesto using e-mail and WWW.

A major conclusion was the identification of Digital Rights Management (DRM) as the technology that would enable the continuation of the traditional ways of incentivising creation and distribution of content and the possibility to innovate the way content is created, distributed and consumed.

The acceptance of DRM, however, is not unconditional. To preserve as much as possible the benefits of today’s digital media, DRM should be interoperable. This is a much abused word, but for DMM interoperability concerns two main aspects, the platform and the end-user device. These loose words require some definitions, though.

DRM: a system of IT components and services along with corresponding law, policies and business models which strive to distribute and control IP and its rights (NIST).

DRM Platform: a framework that enables management of user rights and protection of content under a variety of business models for content usage.

Interoperable DRM Platform (IDP): a platform that exposes interfaces with known specifications that a value-chain user can technically access and use.

Interoperable End-user Device (IED): a device that exposes interfaces with known specifications so that the device can be connected to the DRM platform.

The last two definitions imply that value-chain players and end-users should have the technical capability to access the platform resources, it being understood that the actual access will in general require business agreements with corresponding transactions.

Other issues of a policy nature that need resolution have also been identified, in particular:

  1. Mapping of traditional rights and usages to the digital space (TRU)
  2. Phasing out analogue legacies (PAL)
  3. Deployment of broadband access (DBA)
  4. Improving development of and access to standards (DAS).

Another recommendation was the establishment of an organisation – called Digital Media Project (DMP) – with the goal to implement the DMM action plan. DMP has been established in Geneva in December 2003 as a not-for-profit organisation (see www.digital-media-project.org).

The DMP mission is to "promote continuing successful development, deployment and use of Digital Media that respect the rights of creators and rights holders to exploit their works, the wish of end users to fully enjoy the benefits of Digital Media and the interests of various value-chain players to provide products and services".

DMP has already held two meetings. Actually, achieving the DMP technical goals is not technically difficult, as the technology is largely available. However, the IDP and IED design is not just a technical issue. The important thing is then to set the design parametres – the requirements – right. DMP is currently deriving IDP and IED requirements through three sources:

The eventual use of DMP specifications must confront the fact that countries are used to establish their own policies related to access and use of media as these have largely been influenced by history (i.e. TRUs). Therefore DMP intends to produce a document – called Recommended Action – describing the DMP process to convert TRUs into technically exploitable requirements. It is expected that this will facilitate the adaptation of IDP and IED to the environments that will regulate their use in specific jurisdictions. The same type of documents will also be produced for the other 3 policy issues.

DMP will develop Recommended Practices for End-to-End Conformance (EEC) so that value-chain players can make reference to appropriate EEC clauses in their business agreements intended to be executed on IDP and IED.

The DMP work plan foresees the publication of a specification for "portable audio and video devices" in April 2005, for IDP and IED in October 2005 and for EEC in July 2006.