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Experts Debate Future Of Digital-Rights Management

A conference at Harvard Law School offered different scenarios for managing digital content in the post-Napster age.
What will the future of digital-media-rights management look like in a post-Napster world? Some 200 media executives, attorneys, IT vendors, and legal academics debated Thursday how content producers will protect music, films, and other digital content through the next five years.

The conference, organized by Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society and the GartnerG2 market-research firm, was held at the Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass. The Berkman Center will prepare a white paper based on the conference to provide a road map for how the issue might play itself out.

Digital-rights management has been a hot topic lately as record companies and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) take legal action against an increasing number of people for swapping music files over the Internet and pirated feature films appear online almost as soon as they hit theaters. The acrimonious situation shows how the old business model, in which content owners have more power over consumers, needs to change to adapt to the Internet, said Jim Brancheau, a GartnetG2 research director. "Business models need to change. The status quo is unacceptable," he said.

John Palfrey, the Berkman Center's executive director, outlined five possible scenarios for how digital-rights protection efforts will evolve. But he acknowledged that managing online content might follow any combination of the five or even some unexpected path.

One scenario assumes no change in the current situation, with widespread sharing of music and other content through peer-to-peer sites and irregular enforcement of copyright laws by music companies and other content owners. Under a second scenario, digital-content owners, through more rigorous enforcement of copyright laws, are more successful in preventing unauthorized use and copying of music and other protected content.

Improved digital-rights-management technology, such as encryption for CDs and DVDs, saves the day for content owners in the third scenario. Under the "utility model" scenario, digital content is treated as a public utility with regulatory limits on price discrimination and concentrated ownership of content. The final scenario foresees the creation of some kind of compulsory license system in which content creators and owners are compensated through a means such as taxes on electronic devices and Internet access.

Some attendees said any government involvement in managing digital content would be "Orwellian." The third scenario could result in Internet service providers gaining more revenue for distributing protected content. That's "an extraordinarily bad idea," said Scott Bradner, a senior technical consultant at Harvard, because it means that ISPs might distribute only the most-profitable content.

There appeared to be a consensus that digital-rights-management technology hasn't been effective so far. "It really boils down to educating the consumer," said Mark Ishikawa, CEO of BayTSP Inc., which provides anti-piracy and copyright-tracking services to digital-media companies. Others, such as Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Barlow, said digital-rights-management tools could be misused. "Today's digital-rights management can easily become tomorrow's political-rights management," he said.

Some media industry representatives, including RIAA president Cary Sherman and Fritz Attaway, general counsel for the Motion Picture Association of America, were unable to attend the conference because their travel plans were disrupted by Hurricane Isabel.