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DECE: No news is no news

May 6, 2009 |  8:09 pm

Given my obsession with DRM, I feel compelled to report every tidbit of news I come across about Hollywood's interoperable DRM initiative, the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem. Unfortunately, after attending a panel discussion at Digital Hollywood involving five participants in DECE's planning sessions, all I can report is that the group is closing in on a new name.

Mitch Signer, the Sony Pictures technology chief who doubles as the DECE president, said representatives of the roughly 40 member companies meet monthly and have weekly conference calls. But it has yet to publish any specifications for "DECE-compliant" products, services or content, or say when those might be available. Singer and Mark Coblitz, atop strategic planner for Comcast (and an active participant in the DECE discussions) flatly declined to give a date for, well, anything.

The group's goal is to make legitimate sources of content online more attractive to consumers than free, illegal ones by eliminating the worst features of the electronic locks used to limit copying. The underlying assumption is that some kind of lock, or DRM technology, is necessary to deter piracy, despite ample evidence that DRM on movie downloads and discs hasn't eliminated or, arguably, even reduced movie bootlegging. Regardless, it's certainly true that the major studios won't ...

... release new movies in digital form without DRM, so in that respect the DECE initiative could move digital distribution to a more consumer-friendly place.

The vision, according to Singer and Albhy Galuten, a digital media technology strategist at Sony Corp. of America, is to make the digital movie files and other DECE-protected content more valuable to their purchasers by enabling them be played on any device, anywhere, any time. Content could be copied onto any DECE-compliant device the purchaser owned, without limit, or streamed to any Internet-connected player. The online rights clearinghouse envisioned by DECE would also make it easier for retailers and service providers to innovate and expand their offerings -- one example Singer provided was a tech store preloading a new laptop with the movies and games the buyer had previously purchased from other DECE-compliant vendors.

One issue for DECE that the panel made obvious: For all the talk of DRM as enabling new models and enhancing customer experiences, much of the discussion was about enabling people to do things they take for granted with other forms of media. For example, it's no big deal to start watching a DVD in the living room, pause halfway through and finish watching in the bedroom. Giving consumers the ability to do that with digital files, too, isn't much of an enhancement. Another shortcoming is that Apple isn't a DECE member, so items purchased from iTunes wouldn't be included in the system. Nor would Apple devices, although the ones capable of running applications or a browser (e.g., the iPhone and the iPod Touch) might be adapted to recognize DECE-complaint content.

Color me quixotic, but I think we'll see DECE specifications and even some compliant devices by the end of the year. That's because of the involvement of people like Singer, Galuten and Derek Broes, the senior vice president for digital entertainment at Paramount who used to work for Microsoft and Altnet (which partnered with Sharman Networks in an effort to transform Sharman's Kazaa network into a distribution vehicle for legitimate content). They recognize that the longer it takes to get DECE going, the longer the odds against it working.

One reason the clock is ticking: the growing penetration and increasing speed of broadband Internet services. Singer noted darkly that DVD sales have collapsed in markets where most homes have broadband speeds of 50 Mbps and higher, as in South Korea. That's bad news for an industry that's grown dependent on DVD revenue, but it doesn't have to be fatal -- it just increases the need for a compelling digital movie service, particularly one based on streaming. 

Another apocalyptic prediction came from David Ring, an executive vice president at Universal Music Group's eLabs. If DECE doesn't come out with a compelling offer soon, Ring said, Hollywood could find itself abandoning DRM in a last-ditch effort to provide the interoperability that consumers demand. Now that's an interesting scenario rife with possibilities for innovation -- think inexpensive video jukeboxes for the home or minivan -- but I don't think we'll reach that point. Not, at least, until the DECE experiment has run its course.

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.

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