DRM systems are like ambrosia to hackers," says Mike LaJoie, executive vice president and chief technology officer at Time Warner Cable, as he expounds on the need for cable systems to embrace Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology. Because most DRM solutions are software-based, they whet hackers' thirst for purloined content. That makes DRM more challenging than Conditional Access (CA) hardware systems, which are "tamper-proof," LaJoie adds.
Fueled by the avalanche of portable devices, home networking tools and remote viewing and listening options, DRM has assumed considerable urgency among cable operators, programmers and their technology suppliers. All sectors are drawing on experiences in the music industry, while crafting DRM solutions that cater to the evolving needs of video distribution.
Hierarchy of approaches to safeguarding intellectual
property on cable. Source: Arlen Communications Inc. analysis
Figuring out how DRM will be used—and how to prepare for continuing changes—has become a major challenge in these early days of DRM development. Downloadable security solutions and an array of copy protection schemes all contribute to the amorphous DRM process. Predictably, standards and interoperability also offer significant challenges as content suppliers bring their own views on how to assure that their intellectual property remains inviolate as it moves through new digital routes.
Indeed, consumers' expectations of what they can do with content they have "bought" drive the DRM armada today. Fundamentally, DRM represents a set of rules that define how—and where, and how often—a specific piece of content can be used. These rules are packaged with the content itself, often wrapped around high-value programming.
DRM rules, for example, may limit the number of times a show can been watched. Or they may set the timeframe in which programming can be viewed (e.g. this week only, or three times during the coming month). Or the rules may specify where it can be seen, such as a portable media player as well as through the set-top box that receives it. More complicated rules may set up viewing parameters, such as "watch first 30 minutes for free, then must pay" or "share with just one remote device."
The rules can become complicated, and they are likely to change over the life of specific content—which is why participants in the DRM process are so insistent on flexibility. For example, as portability expands, the rules may have to be modified to encompass new tools. And that's what makes DRM development so challenging for the cable industry.Unsettled technology, choices aplenty
"There are lots of different hardware/software combo solutions," explains Mark Coblitz, senior vice president, strategic planning at Comcast Corp. "None of them is settled in the marketplace."
Coblitz says Comcast is "looking at all of them," but he acknowledges that this is "a more complicated space" because "different people have different devices."
At Atlantic Broadband, an MSO focused on small-town and rural systems, Al Kuolas, VP-engineering and chief technology officer, agrees that the "advent of mobile devices and the shifting of content from a fixed location to a variety of mobile products" is accelerating cable's focus on DRM.
Kuolas expects to deal with his hardware suppliers, Motorola and Scientific-Atlanta, as he approaches the DRM situation. But he acknowledges that "a lot is being driven from a legal perspective," including "capabilities through STBs (set-top boxes) that have not been activated."
Operators and vendors recognize the transitory nature of today's DRM deliberations. For example, at Charter Communications Inc., Pragash Pillai, corporate VP of advanced engineering-digital video, acknowledges, "We have not made any decision on our DRM implementation yet," and he adds that he is looking for "a solution workable to both parties," referring to operators and content suppliers.
"It can't be a one-sided solution," Pillai says. He points to CableLabs, which is helping the industry "identify the DRM solution suitable for us that will meet our business needs."
Ralph Brown, CableLabs' CTO, is steeped in the DRM explosion—juggling the objectives of the cable industry with the expectations of others in the content distribution business—including consumer electronics companies and studios.
"There has to be a process to approve new output technologies and content protection technologies to be added to Table A," says Brown, citing WiFi, Ethernet and other systems that are part of the content protection/distribution value chain.
"There has to be some regimen to [protect] ...high value content appropriately," Brown adds. "That regimen is not exclusively [at] CableLabs." Studios can override a technology that CableLabs approves, he acknowledges, although he emphasizes that Federal Communications Commission regulations acknowledge CableLabs as an arbiter of industry standards.
Brown agrees with other cable executives about the growing urgency for DRM adoption.
"Content is leaving the access network, leaving the secure micro-environment of the STB or CableCARD, going into an open home networking arena, where it can move around more freely," Brown says. "Once that happens, you need some method to protect that content."Ready with solutions
Responding to that need, software and hardware companies are pushing a variety of DRM solutions into the cable industry.
Microsoft Corp. has expanded its Windows Media Digital Rights Management (WMDRM) in two key directions.
"STBs could potentially support WMDRM," explains Marcus Matthias, product manager for Microsoft's Windows Digital Media division. Yet the company's recent emphasis has been on its OpenCable Unidirectional Receiver (OCUR), which puts the Windows DRM solution into Media Center computers, as an alternative to STBs.
"With something like OCUR, we're actually taking content that is wrapped in one container and translating into something that can be consumed on a PC, Media Extender," or other devices, Matthias explains. It took more than a year to develop OCUR, he adds, reflecting that the development efforts were focused on "the consumer value proposition."
Matthias expects that the OCUR process, which received CableLabs' blessing in November, "will get replicated around the world."
At RealNetworks Inc., "Helix" is the brand for all business DRM solutions for cable, mobile and enterprise applications.
Ian McKerlich, general manager of the broadband business unit at RealNetworks, says companies are focused on an end-to-end solution—and he cites the DRM field trial that Time Warner Cable is conducting in San Diego, using Helix.
The project involves 80 channels of linear TV programming, with every one encoded into RealVideo, then encrypted in the Helix DRM solution for the high-speed data network. The structure is not file- oriented, and the programs are decrypted at a home PC.
McKerlich acknowledges that "it's going to take a while to figure out" how to deploy DRM, but he believes a key strength that RealNetworks provides is "a pure play and open platform" that "can evolve as the industry figures this out."
"It's the early days of a pretty complex technology," he says, pointing to the value of a standards-based approach. He warns that "some IP owners are setting a high price, which might stall the adoption" of any specific DRM solution.
Meanwhile, hardware suppliers—armed with their own strong conditional access solutions—are literally in the middle of the DRM dilemma. Their hardware can support a variety of platforms, but they are awaiting directions from operators.
Mark DePietro, VP of strategy at Motorola, resignedly acknowledges that "there are so many" solutions emerging. He singles out "DRM transcoding" and "DRM bridging," which may be part of the next generation of distribution. Put in the context of multiple outputs—such as IEEE 1394, DVI and HDMI plus conventional analog ports—DePietro points out that, "All of those outputs have different copy protection associated with them." His challenge is to evaluate those alternatives, or as he puts it, "Take that concept and generalize it."
The growing appeal of cross-platform content escalates the challenge at all steps in the value chain.
"You want content that was born in one domain to [lie] in another domain, as long as the content provider approves," DePietro adds, emphasizing that such an arrangement means, "You need DRM to balance the rights of content providers and consumers."
In addition, from a business perspective, DePietro points out that cable operators are deliberating their DRM options carefully. "They don't want to make an investment then have to unwind it."
Jim Strothmann, Scientific-Atlanta's director of product strategy-subscriber networks, adds another dimension to the DRM dilemma—although many other technology executives support his point. The cable signal and set-top box are increasingly part of a digital home ecosystem that includes other DRM and copy protection schemes, some of which are optimized, for example, for recordable media or Internet Protocol systems.
"We're focused on security technologies that are tied to the digital viewing device or recording device," Strothmann says. He cautiously notes that operators are looking at a wide variety of solutions and "don't have any firm direction."
"They're looking at portability-protection technologies...waiting for consumer devices," according to Strothmann's list of motivating factors high on MSO rosters. "They want to maximize their control and flexibility tied to content contracts."
He expects that as business models are adopted, they will be applied to other DRM developments.DRM means business
At its root, DRM represents a business process, so it predictably is part of a solutions package. With that in mind, the approach at NDS Group involves a series of developments, starting with its SVP (Secure Video Processor) Alliance.
Beth Erez, an NDS VP and chair of the SVP Alliance, points to the conditional access microprocessor that allows DRM solutions to work across multiple platforms. In this system, the processor carries the rights rules—including content usage rules, the license, and the content itself.
"Getting the first chip was a massive task," she says. The first manufacturers—Broadcom Corp. and STMicroelectronics—"took [on] a lot of risk."
Content can be exported to other DRM systems, Erez explains, pointing out that the set-up assures that "certain digital content is determined by a prescribed set of business conditions which are independent of digital methods." The SVP technology uses an authorized domain format, drawn from the European DVB standard.
Cablevision Systems Corp. is the only major MSO that has become an associate member of the SVP alliance (incidentally, Cablevision's digital cable service uses the NDS VideoGuard conditional access platform), but that doesn't discourage the NDS promoters. Edmund Shapiro, director of project delivery (systems integration) at NDS and SVP, notes that Hollywood studios have supported this venture.
"It will be interesting to see how that dynamic plays out," Shapiro adds. "A technology like SVP is meant to be ubiquitous among several industry segments. Cable may try to develop its own model and get consumer electronics" to buy it.
Although his comments trail off into the realm of negotiated possibilities, Shapiro's underlying remarks—coming from a vendor closely associated with the satellite industry—reflect the enormous collaboration needed throughout the digital value chain.Cornucopia of collaborations
The nascent cable DRM world confronts an array of options, as Hollywood, Silicon Valley and a cohort of global hardware and content companies seek to shape the DRM landscape.
At least a half-dozen standards and interoperability schemes are in the works—some of them skating between content projection and DRM solutions in the overlapping worlds of home and mobile video access. For example, the CORAL Consortium seeks to promote an open interoperable technology among consumer DRM solutions. The group wants to create a common technology framework for content, device, and service providers, no matter which DRM technologies they use.
Another alliance is focused on an Advanced Access Content System (AACS) specification for managing content stored on the next generation of prerecorded and recorded optical media. Although the DRM components of this system dwell on BluRay and HD-DVD formats, they could be deployed for wider applications.
The Video Content Protection System (VCPS) developed by Philips and Hewlett-Packard will allow secure recording on DVD+plus formats, but may extend into DRM discussions. Similarly, Thomson's "SmartRight" content protection system is one of about a dozen technologies that were cited in the controversial "Broadcast Flag" ruling.
"Every distribution medium is working on DRM mechanisms because those media are so competitive," says Peter Fannon, VP-technology policy, government and regulation at Panasonic Corp. of North America. "From a consumer electronics perspective, any copy protection or DRM mechanism has to be practical, reasonable and uniform in its operation to the consumer."
The "alphabet soup" of content protection and DRM solutions continues to evolve, as IP plays a bigger role in cable distribution. For example, the DTCP (Digital Transmission Copy Protection) and HDCP (High-Bandwidth Digital Copy Protection) format—developed by Intel—establish transmission barriers, but are not truly DRM solutions.
With so many factors in play, the DRM debate will continue for quite a while.
"Secure content portability and seamless integration of multiple, even conflicting, proprietary standards are necessary," says Charles Swartz, director of the Entertainment Technology Center at the University of Southern California, a research unit supported largely by Hollywood studios.Avoiding consumer confusion
Brad Hunt, executive VP and CTO of the Motion Picture Association of America, stresses that Hollywood's goal is to offer "more ways for consumers to use content," but warns that producers have "lots of new ways to delivery content."
"Cable operators are very interested in working with the content industry to determine what DRM functionality they must include to remain competitive," says Hunt. But he notes that the prelude to DRM resolution may be some heated exchanges about downloadable conditional access (DCAS) and the CableCARD.
"The cable industry realizes it must support secure home networking so that the cable box can compete as a gateway for access to home networks," Hunt adds. "The portable player is such a new phenomenon that cable is just awakening to the fact that they've got to manage those devices."
That echoes the cautionary advice from Panasonic's Fannon.
"Consumers are easily surprised and turned off, and there are alternatives to what DRMs are intended to do," Fannon says. "People need to be able to use content they lawfully acquire on the devices of their choosing. That promotes customers' maximum use."
For their part, cable operators and their hardware suppliers want to be able to reach their increasingly sophisticated digital customers without adding to the consumer complexity.
Comcast's Coblitz points out that "flexibility and extensibility come from different business models, dealing with consumers." He agrees that "portability will drive" the current wave of DRM demands, but admits, "We don't have an answer yet."
Motorola's DePietro also acknowledges, "We have to make it easy for consumers to do reasonable things, and not erase [content]. The work that's being done in DCAS has a lot of implications to the future of DRM," he adds, comparing it to an inner shell that is wrapped in a downloadable outer shell, which allows a programmer to download future changes in the DRM rules.
As Charter's Pillai summarizes, "DRM is an important solution to provide robust content with a guarantee that content rights are fully protected."
The DRM debate—like DRM itself—comes down to playing by the rules.
Of course, in this case, the rules are on roller-skates: skittering today through constant change.
E-mail: GaryArlen@columnist.com 
|Organization||Product or objective|
|Microsoft||Microsoft Windows DRM (WMDRM)|
|Microsoft||OpenCable Unidirectional Receiver (OCUR) for Media Center PCs|
|NDS||Secure Video Processor (DRM enabler).|
|Digital Transmission Licensing Administrator||Digital Transmission Content Protection (DTCP) standards specification.|
|Coral Consortium||Group seeks interoperability among DRM technologies; specifically, a common technology framework for content, device, and service providers.|
|Advanced Access Content System Licensing Administrator (AACS LA)||A specification for managing content stored on next-generation optical media, including STB connections.|
|Thomson||SmartRight content protection technology.|
|DRM management solutions being evaluated by cable companies (selected/representative samples).|
Source: Arlen Communications Inc., compiled from company reports and industry sources.