Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Digital Media and the, ahem, Business Model of the Future

Nicholas Sheppard

I worked for some years as a researcher in copyright protection technology, though my funding has long ended and I've since moved on. Digital copyright issues probably don't generate quite the fuss they did back in the hey-day of Napster, and this year I discovered that the ACM Workshop on Digital Rights Management — where I think some of the most interesting work in this field was presented back in its own hey-day — is no longer on the calendar. Does this subsidence indicate that issues of copyright and digital media have now been settled to everyone's satisfaction, or just that my former co-travellers in digital media and security have gone off to write about more current headlines, like Facebook's privacy policy?

One recommendation that I heard over and over again is the one that the music industry must combat infringement of its copyrights by "getting new business models." Ironically, perhaps, one of the original hopes for rights management technology was that it would enable new business models based on paradigms other than the exchange of physical copies, not usher in an era of confusing and inconvenient rules of use.

Retailers have, in fact, tried a number of different business models — possibly more than critics give them credit for — including subscription services like Rhapsody, ad-supported services like Spotify, "viral" services like PotatoSystem, and bundled-with-device services like Nokia's Comes with Music (now largely defunct). Well-known bands Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead even tried giving their music away for free or in return for a donation, though neither of them is doing it any longer.

By all accounts, though, the most successful retailer of digital music is Apple's iTunes, which charges a one-off fee for a recording to be kept and played as often as the buyer likes. Sounds rather like the old business model to me.

Might it be that music listeners — or the ones willing to pay for the pleasure, at least — are not as interested in new business models as would-be copyright reformers thought they would be? And did we go through all of that Napster-inspired anguish only to find ourselves doing exactly the same thing as before?

Not quite, obviously, since Rhapsody, Spotify and others do have customers — even if it's not so many as iTunes — and there may be factors other than business models contributing to iTunes' success. One certainly hopes that we've learned a thing or two from the experience.

The video industry, intially protected from file-sharing networks by the time it took to download a video around the turn of the century, is one that has had chance to learn from the experience of the music industry. The trend for copyright protection technology here has been towards so-called "rights locker" services like the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem's Ultraviolet and Disney's KeyChest, along with infringement-detection systems like YouTube's Content ID, rather than the copy-prevention technology that the software and music industries experimented with in times past.

A rights locker is, in essence, an Internet database that records a buyer's right to use a song, video or book. When the buyer wants to access the item, his or her device checks with the locker that its user has, indeed, purchased the right to use it. If well-designed and -implemented, rights lockers might eliminate some of the inconveniences that customers experienced with copy-prevention technologies, including incompatability, an inability to format-shift, and an inability to make back-ups. They also seem to fit nicely with the pay-once-for-eternal-usage model that we have become accustomed to.

Rights lockers, however, don't actually work very much like the books, CDs and DVDs that got us used to the pay-once model in the first place. Since the right to use something is governed by a record in a database rather than possession of a physical copy, it looks more like an "access right" than a "copy right".

How much does this matter? It certainly matters to lawyers, for whom an "access right" and a "copy right" could be quite different things (see Marcella Favale's analysis of EU law for a recent example). But will the average user continue to think that he or she owns something, even if it is an entry in a database rather than a physical book, CD or DVD? Or will the user get used to the idea that "this work is licensed, not sold", in the words of many a software agreement? And, if the latter, will he or she be more likely to explore alternative business models?

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