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Microsoft's new DRM domain

Microsoft_logo_2 The TechDirt community frequently gets into a lather over DRM, with the site's writers and numerous readers contending that such technologies don't add value and don't enable new business models. My own belief is that DRM is like most other technologies in that it's capable of good and bad uses; the former category includes enabling online music and video jukeboxes (the so-called "rental" model, which I think is a misnomer), while the latter category includes just about everything else we've seen so far.

Anyway, part of the problem for DRM has been technological: software like Microsoft's widely used "PlaysForSure" DRM is designed to bind content to devices, rather than to customers. Ideally, the DRM on, say, a movie would let buyers move it freely within their personal domain of devices, raising its ugly head only when they tried to send a copy to someone else's PC or portable. Apple's FairPlay DRM takes this kind of personal domain-based approach, but it only works on Apple gear. The Marlin DRM developed by Intertrust, Panasonic, Philips, Samsung and Sony is designed to be interoperable, but it's hard to find anyone actually using it.

Recently, Microsoft unveiled its own domain-based system, called PlayReady. The software represents a notable break from three longtime Microsoft practices: it runs on competitors' operating systems, not just Windows; it works with competitors' formats, not just Windows Media; and it will be able to interoperate with other DRMs. Wow. It won't be released until later this year, but Microsoft has already lined up several leading mobile-phone companies, including Verizon Wireless and AT&T. Assuming it works as billed, the software will let someone who buys a song on their mobile phone move it seamlessly to all the other devices they use, provided that those devices have the PlayReady software. The caveats: the devices have to be registered electronically to that user, and the copyright holder gets to limit the total number of devices customers may register.

It remains to be seen whether Microsoft can do all of this, but it has already demonstrated the DRM working with AAC and MPEG4 files on a smartphone running the market-leading Symbian operating system. It also has shown off support for superdistribution -- that is, the ability to beam a file from one user to another with the DRM intact, enabling people to buy content from each other without having to download it again. That's an intriguing capability, even though lack of a single standard for phones and mobile networks in the U.S. could curtail the use of superdistribution on cellphones here. It will be interesting to see what Verizon Wireless and AT&T do with PlayReady; with luck, the domain-based DRM won't simply be an excuse for them to charge more for downloadable songs.

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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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