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DRM Debate: How Much Is Too Much?

SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- Is Digital Rights Management an overly intrusive, ineffectual set of technologies or a sound way to protect one's business -- and even a blessing in disguise for consumers? That was the question up for debate in a panel discussion at the Digital Hollywood conference here this week.

As is typical at these industry events, people in the entertainment business staunchly defended; only Consumer Electronics Association spokesperson Jason Oxman presented a dissenting view on the panel, dubbed "Piracy and Digital Rights Management: Legal, Legislative and Social Issues Surrounding DRM and Anti-Piracy Implementation."

"DRM has gotten away from the original conception of preventing piracy -- unlawful commercial distribution of content. It's gotten to a point where it's restricting users' access to content they have purchased. It's good that we're talking about the death or near-death of DRM," said Oxman, who is the trade organization's senior vice president of industry affairs.

Oxman offered the example of needing to buy one copy of a movie to watch on his TV, and another copy to watch on his iPod as evidence of unfair constraints forced on consumers by overenthusiastic DRM.

But some panelists disagreed with Oxman's notion that consumers should have the right to do whatever they want to do with purchased digital content, sans the obvious no-nos like redistributing it.

"You can say you have the right to buy a DVD and make a copy to your iPod, but that's not the agreement you made when you bought the DVD," said Albhy Galuten, VP of digital media technology strategy for Sony Corp. of America.

"We have two choices: governance of content or you get stuff free and pay for it with your taxes (like the BBC's licensing)," Galuten added. "If we're going to be a capitalist society, we have to set prices for consumers and they have a right to buy the product or not buy it."

Oxman said that he agreed that consumers should expect to pay for content, adding, "My point is that we have to find a way to offer users what they want without annoying them."

Users do seem to be irate about DRM. Companies like Apple, which dropped DRM for iTunes music downloads earlier this year, and Amazon, whose music store has offered DRM-free MP3s since September 2007, have used such changes as a selling point to attract consumers, touting the fact that DRM-free music can be played on any device. Microsoft is reportedly scaling back the DRM on Windows 7, saying users complained the authentication process and subsequent reduced functionality if the OS was deemed to be an illegal copy, was too burdensome in Vista.

Recently consumers dramatically drove down the ratings of the strategy game Spore on numerous shopping and game sites due to its aggressive DRM, and the DRM that Amazon applies to Kindle downloads is being cited in media reports as a potential problem in online bookseller's recently announced plan to pursue the textbook market -- students rely on reselling textbooks at the end of the year to recoup some of their investments in the pricey tomes. DRM on digital textbooks means that re-sales would likely be prohibited.

Next page: Restrictions are needed