DECE UltraViolet: Eventually solving (half of?) the digital media entertainment business

As every year CES rolls out its share of news and new products in the consumer electronics business. Among them this year one that may well represent a significant step forward in the digital media distribution and rights management business : DECE’s UltraViolet design completion and deployment roadmap.

Basically, the idea behind UltraViolet is one that’s been floating around for a long long time now but was regularly shelved or discarded due to the inability of the market actors in and across the industry to reach any form of agreement and particularly to acknowledge the essential driver in this marker : The Users and the corresponding User Experience. So, the basic idea behind UltraViolet is the cloud based digital locker for content and rights licenses (check out a promotional video for UltraViolet)

Why might it work ? Well, the answer is fairly simple : DECE (Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem) which is a cross-industry consortium of over 50 companies (and growing) committed to make UltraViolet the next generation standard for rich media experience where the users will get the flexibility and user experience they’ve been denied for over a decade now. With UltraViolet, users will be able to download, stream, share and even get copies for use on physical media, basically covering a great deal of the average user needs in terms of interoperability and user experience.

So, all this sounds like a dream come true ! BUT this might actually only address half (if not less) of the issues. The two major problems in this industry were : User Experience (technical issue) and Business Models. Solving the former through a global (more or less, Apple and Disney are missing!) technical agreement on a common file format is a good start. But the business model side remains an open issue. And history has shown the poor ability of the entertainment industry to be creative in this space.

Moreover, UltraViolet has a pretty precise idea of what a typical user or household wants, uses, needs and is. UltraViolet accounts will be limited to 12 devices, 6 people households and 3 streams in parallel. This is insane !

Finally, and not of least importance is the whole anonymity issue. This approach, allowing for massive monitoring of usage will definitely benefit every actors of the ecosystem except probably the users. Or in other words, assuming such a service cannot offer anonymity for obvious reasons, how will the commercial actors value this in the business models for the users ? There’s a difference between knowing a given movie was or is being viewed and knowing that a specifically identified person is watching this movie and knowing nothing except a piece of content was bought on a given date. These three situations require different pricing ! How much do we value the information we release knowingly or not ? Not much I must say.

For these reasons, (and don’t get me wrong I’m very excited to see how this works out) I remain cautious on the actual solution. The above mentioned issues are important and will need to be addressed and fine tuned. The digital locker is definitely the right way to go for two reasons : technical interoperability (i.e., user experience) and Green IT issues allowing to reduce the amount of storage, waist of bandwidth and energy used for shifting around the world millions of copies of the same content.

At the end of the day, given the right business model and a decent user experience, users are likely to adopt many solutions and services. iTunes remains among the most notable examples of this. Preserving anonymity, complying with personal information regulations around the world and offering the users the ability to unilaterally claim their right to do something without being bothered by technology are key properties that still drive my own research in this fascinating domain. (Comments and reactions welcome 😉 

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Call for Action – let’s unite to propose a “Grassroots DRM Day”

Today, May 4th, is “The Day Against DRM”. It’s a very sad day ! While I think DRM is fundamentally flawed by design we’re still stuck in this extremism debate going nowhere anytime soon. Apple has sold its 1’000’000th (1 million) iPad last Friday, 28 days since its launch, 12 million apps downloaded and 1.5 million ebooks. Let’s face the facts, compared to the number of signatures collected against the iPad this device is rocking its world despite the DRM issues. Basically, the user experience by far outweighs the problems. I’ve written an Open Letter to DefectiveByDesign.org about this here.

So, here’s my proposition for today. It’s a call for action: let’s unite to propose a “Grassroots DRM Day“, a day to co-creatively Rethink and Redesign DRM. Drop me a note if you feel like participating (I’ll setup a page in case there’s a critical mass of people who want to take action) (See LibrePlanet Wiki)

Open Letter to DefectiveByDesign.org

Dear Fellows,

As odd as it may seem, I’m both, a member of DefectiveByDesign and a researcher in DRM. Reading the post of the second 5’000 signatures pad sent to Apple recently triggered an irresistible need to write this open letter.

About 45 days for 10’000 signatures in Internet and Social Network times, is, and I’m sorry to say, nothing to be celebrated ! Comparatively, within a couple of weeks, iPad pre orders amount to hundreds of thousands. Some estimates even consider 10’000 pre orders a day ! In my world and according to my math, this suggests the benefits outweigh by far the point your want to make, however valid it may be. The reason lies simply in two things : User Experience and a Business Model that makes sense for the average user ! They did it with the iPod, did it again with the iPhone and the iPad will be nothing shy of its predecessors.

Sure DRM is defective by design and we ought to know better when it comes to respecting hard fought for and acquired rights (fair use, home copy, first sale, etc.) But who do we owe the current situation to ? The Media Industry who has relentlessly taken hostage the technology providers and lobbied for public policies considering the Internet wasn’t something they should consider in the evolution of their business.

So be it, but in the meantime we’re now stuck with totally bogus laws emerging around the world with Three Strikes progressive response approaches which needless to say are technically inapplicable as demonstrated by many researchers in the field.

So, what do we do ? We continue to fight along the extremes with DRM abolitionists (by analogy to Lessigs’ Internet cheerleaders) VS copyright freaks (MPAA / RIAA / ACTA / HADOPI, Digital Economy Bill and others around the world) who want to place a Digital Decency Probe in every home ? Decency as in “Thou Shalt Not Enjoy Thy Media Experience”. Imposing already useless monitoring and deep packet inspection through ISPs ? What’s next, a Global Registrar of false positives banned from the Internet ? We’ll soon all need to file for Internet asylum somewhere, waiting for the Internet to die from suffocation, strangled by too many incompatible territorial laws trying to regulate an inherently global media.

I’m sorry to say but we’re all going south with this ! Is this the information society we want our kids to inherit ? Definitely not, and we need to act before it’s too late. Larry Lessig in a recent talk at the Italian parliament has brilliantly pictured the situation arguing about the evil of the Extremes, challenging each and everyone of us to some humility when it comes to regulations (regulatory humility).

So, dear Fellows, this letter is by no means an attempt at saying you don’t have a point and I’m grateful to see activism does exist here too. But I urge you to bring the debate to a level where everyone can humbly participate in co-creative redesign of DRM outside the corrosive extremes. In doing so, I would suspect we would be able to gather orders of magnitude more signatures to more effectively counterbalance things that don’t make sense.

Hoping you won’t sack me from your database for this, I kindly urge you to join the conversation towards what one might nowadays call socially responsible design !

Jean-Henry Morin