Does content protection undermine usability?

The INDICARE project is dedicated to researching the consumer acceptability of Digital Rights Management (DRM) in Europe — its partners include two German organisations, one Dutch, and one Hungarian. Its web site features regular and insightful articles on content protection across different platforms — mobile, Internet — and reviews from a user perspective.
Usability of online content affects its sales. But often the interests of users are pitched against those of providers. Users are perceived as wanting complete control over the media content in their possession, free of any DRM restrictions. Providers and copyright owners are seen to be ‘getting in the way’ of users by pegging back the sharing and unpaid distribution of their material.

In some cases this characterisation is fair. This INDICARE report on a recent DRM technical workshop concludes that “the end users of content are still looked at as ‘the enemy’ by technicians. Their major problem is still how to achieve better content protection, and as long as this central question is not solved, little effort will be put in making DRM systems more consumer friendly, implementing more privacy or respecting the interests of disadvantaged groups.” However, the full range of INDICARE articles demonstrates that the picture is sometimes more complex, and pragmatic compromises may server everyone’s interests.
For example, this interview with Leonardo Chiariglione of the not-for-profit Digital Media Project introduces the concept of Traditional Rights and Usages (TRUs). My usability perspective on TRUs is that users expect to be able to do the same things with digital music (or more accurately ‘online’ or ‘network’ music since CDs are also digital) as they used to be able to do with analogue music.
TRUs pretty quickly hit problems when it comes to the digital equivalent of lending an album to a friend. Should DRM restrict the playing of your digital tracks on someone else’s device? If it doesn’t, then what’s to stop you ‘lending’ your albums to all your friends (and strangers too) while still keeping your own copy? Would device-specific restrictions prevent the TRU of copying a CD or record onto tape or MiniDisk to play it on a mobile device or in the car?
Chiariglione suggests that instead of a “TRU to copy” it may be more constructive for the future to think in terms of a “TRU to access” — that is, allowing you or your friends to access a version of your tracks. In a separate report on an INDICARE workshop on mobile music one participant is cited as arguing that users may “change their habits” and be persuaded to relinquish even the “TRU to own” content if they can have access to it anytime, anywhere. Sony’s StreamMan service apparently offers such access to some broadband and mobile phone users in Finland. (Regular readers will recognise the link here with my previous threads about martini media and ubiquitous access.)
Philips’ home networks system is reported as another instance of ‘anytime anywhere’ playback, but in this case the content is ‘owned’ — as in downloaded, rather than streamed — and brings with it the restriction that content can only be played by online authenticated compliant devices. In the absence of widespread standardisation, consumers may resist being tied into selecting from the minority of devices that support the right kind of authentication. It is that kind of inconvenience that drives them to the kind of work-arounds that get labelled as ‘piracy’.
Another participant in the mobile music workshop is cited as saying that “the ideal DRM system has to be easy to use, be device independent, implemented without client installation, related to the user and not to the machine, support data transfer to different devices, be prepared to handle new media formats, support superdistribution, as well as has to be approved by content owners for all kinds of content, device types, and distribution channels”.
Clearly, this is easier said than done. There are major problems in providing consistent usability and protection across PC, handheld, set-top box, and mobile phone platforms (Java may be the only application layer that can work across all of these). Other technologies such as digital watermarks and fingerprints have been in development for years and are still proposed as solutions by some. Further details of these and other potential solutions are in the various INDICARE articles.
The consensus, in this community at least, appears to be that in the short term providers are best taking a pragmatic view that blurs the lines between commercial distribution and peer-to-peer (P2P) services. To quote this INDICARE article “On the one hand, there has to be some form of protection, otherwise there is no viable business model, but on the other hand the protection does not have to be perfect for a business model to be viable”. Apple’s Fairplay DRM is seen as one example, in permitting a finite amount of copying.
Certainly there is evidence of the pragmatic blurring in services like Weed and Wippit, as well as (possibly) in recent announcements such as the Wurld Media/Peer Impact deal. (Does Musicmatch still encourage music sharing, since their buy-out by Yahoo?) Activists are proposing P2P solutions to get musicians a better deal than they currently get from major labels. But apparently even senior officials at the Recording Industry Association of America are saying “P2P technology is great. It can be harnessed for good or harnessed for bad“.
I hope that providers will learn from the experience of ‘a little bit of sharing’ that, if this sharing can be tracked to determine users’ tastes and preferences, they might actually be able to turn it to their advantage in targeting their marketing to develop new acts. Technologies such as Audioscrobbler could help with this tracking. As one of the Sony people behind StreamMan is quoted as saying in this article, “Right now, DRM is about protection, but in the future it’s about CRM (Customer Relationship Management)”.
Meanwhile there will remain some residual tension between DRM protection and usability. The ideal, most usable DRM should be invisible to users. That means placing as few restrictions as possible on user controls.

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