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By | Faultline 8th June 2005 10:48

Comcast joins Coral DRM crew

Let a thousand DRMs bloom

Analysis This week Comcast surprisingly joined the supporters of the Coral Consortium’s digital rights management interoperability initiative which was begun last year by the leading consumer electronics manufacturers.

There are two ways to achieve interoperable digital rights management, says Talal Shamoon of Intertrust, “everyone in the world uses the same DRM, and that means all of us going down the Microsoft route, or we can all use different DRMs and we separate interoperability from the DRM and let a million DRMs bloom,” which pretty much sums up the role of the Coral Consortium.

And this week Coral signed one of the biggest US media names that was missing from the puzzle, in adding the support of cable TV company Comcast to the 30 odd names that have already signed up with Coral.

Jack Lacy, Coral Consortium's president, like Shamoon, another Intertrust employee, points out that this means all the major record labels, all the studios except Disney and Viacom and the two largest and most affluent US cable TV operators are signed up as supporters of Coral’s new architecture for making DRM’s interoperate. It doesn’t mean they are all going to use it, but so far so good.

The founder members include Hewlett-Packard, Intertrust, Philips, Matsushita, Samsung, Sony and Twentieth Century Fox and two batches of subsequent groups joining have included NBC Universal, Sony BMG, Universal Music Group, IFPI, EMI Music, Warner Brothers, Time Warner Cable, Cloakware, Sun Microsystems, Ardtully Technologies, and Kenwood.

But why would Comcast and Time Warner Cable get anything from joining a DRM interoperability group; after all, at present it uses conditional access systems, simple decrypt /. don’t decrypt, systems either have a single unique key built into the set top or resident on a smart card.

“I can’t speak for the cable operators specifically, but all the companies that in the past operated on very simple content distribution models have shown that they are interested in richer business models, which extend further into the living room and around the home,” said Shamoon, “companies that used to run walled gardens are now looking for new business models.”

The problem that all operators are facing is caused by open IP access. It used to be that if you owned the network, then you owned the customers, but that’s changing. Companies like Yahoo and Google own customers, but they don’t own any networks, and that’s because they only deliver services that can be delivered over open IP access. What happens to companies like Comcast when TV can be delivered over best-effort internet. Quite simply it doesn’t want to find out, it wants to offer those services itself, and to do that, it needs control over DRM.

“Some people like to cling to the past,” said Shamoon, “but these content delivery networks employ some pretty smart people and they can see that DRM offers them new ways of conducting their business.” While Intertrust and Coral doesn’t want to put words in their mouths it seems to Faultline that if Comcast and Time Warner Cable, among others, realize that they are in the business of making money out of delivering content, then they must follow that business wherever it leads.

Right now, their business model relies on getting homes to sign for a broadcast TV service, which, for the most part, contains advertising. The advertising is sold by owners of cable TV channels, and this means that they can charge the cable companies less for the content than they would have to charge without advertising. In turn that means that the cable operators can charge consumers less (not that they do).

Already Comcast and co have experimented with pay per view, video on demand, games services, music services, even dating on demand, and more recently subsidizing digital video recorders so that their customers can watch the content that is broadcast when they want, rather than when it is broadcast.

But to keep their customers loyal, and to remain central to content delivery, Comcast must go on to offer video on demand services where programs can store on a DVR, ad it must offer this for customers that are NOT viewing the programming on the Comcast network.

For instance, in January Comcast said that it will experiment using equipment designed by satellite radio maker Delphi to develop ways to allow users to store video content and transfer it to an in-vehicle entertainment system, and take it with them on the go.

Under the agreement, Delphi will work to develop an electronic consumer device for use in vehicles that enables the transfer and playback of video. The agreement includes an anticipated timeline of six -18 months for evaluation and development, which means that the service could emerge at any time from next month to this time next year. For projects like that, the video will suddenly be out of the control of its conditional access system and a digital rights management system would be needed which can allow copies to be made onto DVD’s and then subsequently safely copied onto portable devices.

At the same time Comcast and Time Warner Cable are known to be looking at bundling in mobile telephony services into their mix. This is likely to be achieved on the back of Mobile Virtual Network Operator contracts with suppliers such as Sprint Nextel. Here the mobile handsets are likely to support OMA, if the operators can ever agree a license fee to the patent holders for the OMA DRM.

So movement from fixed conditional access to portable device to phone is likely to be required from one cable company supplier, using multiple DRMs, and that implies a method for transferring content between at least two DRMs. If you add PC based home servers into the mix, that implies at least three DRMs which need to swap content. So Comcast does have a need for Coral, after all?

Coral’s Nemo stands for Networked Environment for Media Orchestration and it is a combination of software agents and online connections which verify transactions.

In Nemo there are four defined sets of roles; client, authorizer, gateway and orchestrator, all communications happens over a pure IP network. Work is allocated to each level such as authorization, peer discovery, notification, services discovery, provisioning, licensing and membership creation.

The client sits in the DRM and uses the services of the other three peers, with the authorizer deciding if the requesting customer should have access to the content; the gateway takes on the role of a helper that will provide more processing power to negotiate a bridge to another architecture and the orchestrator is a special form of gateway that handles non-trivial co-ordination such as committing a new delivery transaction.

So what actually happens when a Nemo-compliant DRM wants to transfer content to another Nemo-compliant DRM? Does the file get decrypted and then re-encrypted?

“It depends on how our members decide to build their systems. One way is for the new DRM to go and get a new copy of the file from a remote source. Other systems will be set up to convert on the fly from one system to another.

“Say you take an apartment building – all served by a wireless network. The content might be available in a format my DRM can eat, and copying will happen in the most efficient way that the network can organize it.

“One DRM says ‘I don’t know or trust this other DRM’. Now it issues a request to Coral, saying ‘can you help me out?’.

“I trust you, Coral, it says, and Coral looks around and checks its policies. Maybe it authorizes a translation, maybe it transfers another new copy of the content, but whatever happens, the copy just turns up. “Under those circumstances we believe that content owners and network owners will gradually alter their policies and make them easier to work with,” said Shamoon.

The content owner has to already trust both DRMs and that’s a separate choice that the content owner makes. All that a DRM owner then has to do is to agree to trust communication to the Coral NEMO architecture and it can work with any other DRM.

What about the mobile telephony DRM that has emerged out of the Open Mobile alliance?

“We have played with OMA in the labs and we are looking at it. It was purpose built for mobiles, and its DRM has two pieces really a license server and a content server. What happens at the moment when I buy all my content from Orange and then I want to change to using O2? Can I take it with me or will my license server no longer allow me a license to view content I have already bought?

“We could be in a situation where two OMAs have separate trust chains and they won’t talk to each other.”

So how will Nemo come to market? Will it involve operating like the Digital Living Networks Alliance (DLNA) and putting together usage case scenarios and conducting plugfests where different NEMO-compliant DRMs come together and Coral members try to work out how they can work together?

“Well there’s some of that, but we hope there’s a lot more to it than that. We currently offer a compliance framework and members can test for compliance. The next thing is to define our certification process, that’s not been done yet.

“We have to work out how we will hand over trust credentials between NEMO and DRMs and we have to establish how key renewability will work. All that should be available by the end of the summer, and go through final refinements over the autumn. We think some of our members will implement during Q4 and we will be certifying DRMs by the end of the year.”

“In fact the DLNA are getting involved with Coral and its chairman Scott Smyers has got involved with Coral,” said Shamoon.

Which is pretty important, really. The DLNA says that it will only endorse other, existing standards, and not produce any standards of its own. But currently it has no recommendations to its 100 plus members on the subject of DRM. They have said that they will never endorse a standard that only works on a single architecture, which is one reason that Microsoft has made its Janus DRM independent of the Windows architecture and why it has licensed Intervideo to move Windows Media Player to run on Linux (not that it has ever gone and ahead and built it).

If Coral is put forward as a standard and receives the DLNA’s endorsement, then DLNA would be saved from having to endorse any single DRM.

So will the content partners at Coral insist that all the DRMs that they deal with use Coral?

“Obviously that’s our eventual goal that content owners will push for Coral, but they have already approved various DRMs for delivery, such as Microsoft Media DRM.

“They may choose to continue working with two or more separate worlds. For instance Windows DRM, Apple’s Fairplay and any Coral-compliant DRM. These three may never speak to each other and perhaps the Coral logo goes on all the other products and they occupy their own shelf at Best Buy and other stores.”

The original Faultline coverage of this initiative, from an early comment made by Philips was entitled “Finding Nemo DRM in time for Christmas or the spring.” Given that it was written in September 2004, we should have perhaps said which Christmas we were referring to. The truth is that although the clock is ticking, the speed at which Coral is working seems to be fast enough that by Christmas 2005 the technology should be here and by Christmas 2006 it should be an established technology. Will that be early enough?

Coral had better hurry up and get its specifications out there. Failure to do so would mean that the world will default to PC-based DRM - and that will mean another monopoly for Microsoft.

But the truth is far more complex. Until now there has been a stand-off between Microsoft, Apple, the CE manufacturers and the mobile world over DRM.

Microsoft only achieved its influence by giving away its DRM systems bundled into its Media Player, which so far has also been bundled into the operating system.

But being forewarned by the monopoly outcome of the PC market, Consumer Electronic companies like Sony, Matsushita, Samsung and Philips have so far shied away from taking up Microsoft’s offer to include its DRM and its media player in their CE products.

Some of the smaller, but ambitious Far East start-up CE firms have taken the Microsoft tools onboard, especially those that have traditionally partnered Microsoft elsewhere, such as Creative Laboratories and iRiver. But companies representing 90 per cent of today’s CE devices have said: “No we don’t want to be controlled like the PC makers.”

They in turn missed their opportunity to bundle a single, free, common DRM into all of their CE products and now they are faced instead with a last chance saloon of having to come up with a way to make all major DRMs interoperable.

But they aren’t under considerable time pressure. Each year they delay they will lose a little market share, but the major US Content companies know that licensing their content for use on Windows Media DRM is really only a way to reach the millions that have PCs, not the billions that have TVs. So Christmas 2006 may not be too late for the first big buying season for Coral.

So when and how will Coral’s Nemo emerge? We suspect that it will be a slow enablement of the various CE products, a PC client being put together perhaps by Hewlett-Packard or Sony, and then a gradual drift into adherence and the use of the Coral logo starting to be something meaningful six months or a year following its release.

Eventually the pressure for Microsoft, Macrovision and even Apple may become compelling enough for them to sign up. Maybe not. Microsoft has a long standing habit of not signing up to anything alien until it has to, but then it usually supports standards pretty wholeheartedly.

So will the Coral logo mean something like the Microsoft ‘Play for Sure’ logo? “We refer to that as ‘Are you sure it Plays,’” says Shamoon, but he’s fairly sure that if Microsoft DRM becomes Nemo-enabled, then pretty much everything will be in the same DRM universe and then play. For sure.

Related stories

DRM comes to mobiles
Coral DRM spec imminent
CE giants open DRM to the community
CE vendors unite to develop DRM
Coral Consortium, the world's biggest DRM talking shop
Big guns board Intertrust DRM bandwagon

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