Whither Digital Rights Management?

The most interesting and significant story this week has been EMI’s announcement that they are launching DRM-free superior quality downloads across its digital repertoire. Not surprisingly Apple’s iTunes Store will be the first online music store to sell the new downloads. Ironically, such an open approach might help them to reinforce a proprietary standard.

Many observers have interpreted this announcement as the beginning of the end for Digital Rights Management. That may well be the case for the entertainment industry. The technical design concept is fundamentally flawed. Any system that involves content being decoded in a hostile environment is vulnerable to interception and copying unless you can you install tamper-proof hardware at every location. That’s wishful thinking. On top of that, customers don’t like the inevitable restrictions on fair use of the content. As a consequence the business model has failed to deliver. No amount of lobbying or marketing will compensate for these flaws.

But don’t write off the usefulness of DRM technologies. Some of the early developers of DRM products found a more fruitful market in the protection of sensitive Boardroom documents – an application that’s both compelling and easy to implement. And of course the longer term future of all information security relies on safeguarding data between trusted environments across insecure channels. That’s an objective that DRM technology can help deliver.

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