Digital Rights Management De-mystified
By Dan Briody, Tue Apr 15 13:00:00 GMT 2003

Nobody wants to pay for their digital content, but if that's what it takes to speed up next-generation services, bring it on.

Ask a wireless industry expert what he thinks is holding back next generation services and you're likely to get a whole litany of excuses. Network build-out has been slowed. Consumers aren't willing to pay. The phones can't handle the data. And while all of these explanations are in some way true, there's one small piece of the logistical puzzle that has not yet been solved. Though it doesn't get as much attention as some of these other excuses, digital rights management is easily as important to bringing multimedia to our mobile phones.

Before you can download that ring tone, or stream that video clip, or read that article on you phone, you have to have a secure system of protection for that material, most of which is copyrighted. The bottom line is that the biggest content providers in the world aren't about to give up their product for free, and they are not going to stand by and watch their entire business get 'Napsterized.' And that content -- whether it is music, videos, or even simple wallpaper or ringtones -- is what will drive adoption of the mobile Internet. It's something that the wireline Internet is still trying to sort out, and it's no secret that not having a solution has held the Internet back.

In the old days, this is exactly the type of problem that would cripple a fragile and emerging market like that of the mobile Internet. Rival companies would develop competing standards, content companies would require varying levels of security, and somehow, you just know, Europe and the United States wouldn't see things the same way. But this is a new millennium, and a new spirit of unity has emerged in the wireless industry, and its name is the Open Mobile Alliance (OMA).

Miraculously, the OMA has been able to unite the entire wireless industry under one standards body in a little more than a year. The issue of digital rights management was indeed headed for the disaster described above, but when the WAP Forum, 3GPP, SyncML, and Wireless Village all signed on to OMA's charter, a certain quagmire was averted. Now all of the major carriers, handset makers, and software providers are moving in a straight line towards a single DRM standard. Harmony, thy name is OMA.

This is not to say that the work of the OMA has been, or will be, easy. "We are very fortunate for the consolidation that has taken place in the mobile space," concedes Wills Buhse, the vice chairman of the OMA. "On the other hand, what makes DRM standardization so difficult is that the requirements throughout the content industry are so different. Taking all of these requirements into account is very difficult."

So far, the OMA has come up with a two-phase strategy. The first phase, called OMA DRM Version 1.0, consists of three parts and was first issued late last year. The first is called Forward-Lock. This is digital rights management at its simplest. It allows for basic content, like news, sports scores, ring tones, or images to be downloaded to a handset, but it prevents the content from being forwarded on to another user. Once a piece of media is downloaded, that's the end of it. It stays on that phone forever, or until it's deleted. Forward-Lock can be used on simple phones, and is even available today on some models, like the Nokia 3650.

The second subset of OMA DRM version 1.0 is called Combined Delivery. This allows for more complicated rules for usage to be set for a given piece of media, and is an extension of Forward-Lock. For example, an image could be downloaded to a phone using combined delivery, and the user could view the image a predetermined number of times before the usage rights expire and the image self deletes. Or the usage rights could be set by a time limit instead. The content is wrapped inside of the DRM technology and the two are inseparable. In other words, the rules of usage are actually embedded in the content. This makes more sense when you understand the third element of OMA DRM version 1.0.

Separate Delivery means that the content itself and the rules for usage are sent as separate and distinct software. That means that a user can download media and forward it on to a friend, but the rights are not sent. That means that in order for the friend to use the content, they need to agree to a new rights agreement, whether that means making a small payment or something else. It's called Rights Refresh, and it allows for the kind of viral distribution of content that the wireless medium enables, referred to as Superdistribution. This technology would give a user the ability to preview a piece of content before deciding whether to purchase it.

Phase 2 of OMA's digital rights management will handle more complex and rich forms of media content, like video, music, and Symbian applications. Since these types of content are higher in value, there is an understandable need for more security. This is where content providers get nervous, and where the OMA has some really heavy lifting to do. "There are a lot of people in the content industry that are freaked out about this," says Jared Carleton, an industry analyst at Frost & Sullivan. "I think we are in a holding pattern as far as media is concerned. I don't foresee this kind of thing becoming mainstream for consumers for 5 years."

And that is the challenge that faces the OMA. In order for content providers to feel comfortable releasing their most valuable content to the wireless community, they will need close to 100 percent assurances that their content is safe. At least the first phase is in place and being implemented as we speak. The fact that there is no confusion or splintering is also a very positive sign. Can world peace be far behind?

After failing miserably at every attempt to become the next great American author, Dan Briody settled in San Francisco and started writing about the technology revolution in the mid-90s. Today he is the author of Red Herring's Wireless Watch column, and he is still trying to write the great American novel.