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Disney offers KeyChest, but where is the KeyMaster?

Disney, KeyChest, DRM, digital movies, online movies, DECE A day after the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem announced its latest milestones, Disney provided a slick demonstration of the alternative it's developing to promote online movie distribution. Dubbed KeyChest, it has a lot in common with DECE -- both attempt to make legal movie downloads more appealing to consumers, in part by solving the problems caused by the incompatible anti-piracy technologies used by various online retailers (e.g., Apple, CinemaNow, Amazon, Microsoft and Sony) and device makers. They also would create a way to make legal downloads more valuable by giving consumers more options for watching the movies they buy and more assurance that their purchases won't be rendered obsolete by changing technology.

The main difference is that Disney decided to put the KeyChest system together first and look for partners later. That's why its technology is fully baked, while the DECE consortium is still trying to nail down key details.

The demonstration was impressive ...

... with the KeyChest rights locker giving purchasers near-immediate access to their movies across multiple platforms (computer, TV, mobile phone) and even across service providers. In one example, Disney's Arnaud Robert showed how retailers and service providers could tap into KeyChest to share information about a customer's purchases, making a movie bought from one available immediately through the other's website or set-top box. In another, he showed how KeyChest could enable mobile phones and set-tops to gain instant access to movie files copied (legally) from a newly purchased DVD onto a PC -- without resorting to a home network.

Now for the cold water. As with DECE, the main effect seemed to be increasing the perceived value of purchased movies, rather than rentals. And in an era of connected devices and on-demand movie libraries online, I'm not convinced that consumers will be as interested in purchases as they used to be.

Second, studios, retailers and service providers will decide whether to charge more for the extra flexibility KeyChest provides. And studios' track record on this front isn't very encouraging. KeyChest makes it easy for service providers to provide streamable versions of the movies people buy from rival retailers, but will they charge for the streams? Will the studios force them to by demanding a fee for the streaming rights?

Most important, KeyChest won't be meaningful without a broad range of retailers and service providers supporting its protocols. DECE has a significant lead on Disney in that department, and even DECE is barely scratching the surface when it comes to pay-TV and mobile content providers. Still, Robert, who is Disney's VP of emerging technologies and media security, said that KeyChest relies on open and widely used standards, so it won't take much for a company to participate. Company executives declined to identify any other participants in KeyChest, saying that they would reveal more on that front soon.

Because KeyChest is the brainchild of a Hollywood studio (as is DECE, which was initiated by Sony Pictures Entertainment), it assumes that the way to solve the problems caused by incompatible digital rights management technologies is not to dump the DRM -- the solution preferred by many consumer advocates, who view DRM as an improper attempt by Hollywood to control what people do with the material they buy online. Instead, KeyChest offers a graceful work-around that lets retailers and service providers stick with whatever flavor of DRM they happen to use today.

Basically, KeyChest participants share (though KeyChest's online rights locker) the data they collect about what their customers have paid for, using a standard format that removes any personally identifiable information. Such anonymization is crucial to gaining consumers' trust that KeyChest isn't a marketing ploy masquerading as a customer service. Sharing rights information enables websites, service providers and connected devices to overcome the DRM incompatibility problem, Robert said; when confronted with an encrypted file, the device or service provider pings KeyChest to confirm that its owner has the right to view it, then provides a key. All the popular DRM systems use the same type of encryption on movie files, Robert said. The difference is in the way they protect the keys needed to unlock them.

(Disney is also pushing a common file format, called SingleFile, based on widely used open standards. But KeyChest can work with any file format, Robert said.)

Kelly Summers, Disney's vice president of digital distribution, stressed that KeyChest would be an enabler for digital distributors, not a competitor. Nor is it competing with DECE, she said, although it's not clear why the world would need two comprehensive online rights lockers. Most important, she insisted that Disney would not operate KeyChest. Instead, the company will be putting together a steering committee at this week's International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas that will look for a third party to operate KeyChest. I wonder if Vinz Clortho is available....

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division. Follow him on Twitter: @jcahealey

 
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