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Back to School on DRM

there exists a pecking order when
it comes to assignments. In mainstream
newspapers, cub reporters
get the fire beat. In tech writing, it
varies. I worked next to a guy in the
early ’90s who took on “why are
pedestals green?” to avoid the annual
fleet-management roundup.

Likewise for test equipment,
and, since digital, DRM — digital
rights management. Why? High volumes of multisyllabic
jargon; triply nested acronyms; religious
wars about software-based cryptography. All that,
and for years, nobody really was using it.

That’s about to change. DirecTV announced its
plan to use DRM made by NDS on Aug. 31. MSO
technologists readying their Internet-protocol
video strategies count the transition from conditional
access to DRM as part of what they need
to plan, build and provision.

It all feels rather cusp-ish, here on the brink
between summer and fall of 2011.

For that reason, here’s a lay of the land, in
these calm-before-the-storm DRM days:

DRM is about controlling more than one state.
Digital set-tops, in a security sense, are one-trick
ponies: On the condition that you’re a subscriber,
you get access to the programming. Encryption is
applied to protect stuff in transit. DRM, by contrast,
wraps protection around the video asset, to serve
multiple business cases — not just transit.

For MSOs, it’s about picking a system to protect
content transmitted in IP, while figuring out
how to deal with assets that get their DRM wrappers
elsewhere. Say you’ve bonded a dozen or so
DOCSIS channels, planks for a simulcast of your
linear and on-demand lineups, in IP. That’s when
you pick your DRM. At the same time, content will
come inevitably in a format that’s been “DRM’d”
elsewhere, earlier in the path.

What you buy are key management services and
keep-it-fresh services. Surprise, surprise: DRM is a
software thing. Buying it means buying the servers
that manage the keys back and forth, to unlock the
assets. Or, as one DRM tech friend says, “You buy
the thing that runs the filter and flips the bits.”

It’s a pretty crowded vendor community. Surprisingly
or not, the two biggies of the conditional
access “duopoly” — Cisco Systems and Motorola
— aren’t high on the buzz meter that is DRM. It’s
super-crowded, though, with at least a half dozen
big contenders. Welcome to the open-source world.
Speaking of which, one of the questions about what
will happen in the looming DRM heyday is what
Google will do with its December 2010 acquisition
of Widevine. Making its DRM open and free would
have a predictable affect on the DRM marketplace.

Revocation’s still a bitch. Ask anyone involved
in conditional access what the biggest hurdle was
in getting those foundational security technologies
deployed. Much like now, the muck of it was in the
contracts, not in the actual technology — meaning
figuring out who finally agrees to provide indemnification
in the event of a security breach.

If history repeats, this is precisely when it goes
from “fun” to “everything’s fun — until someone
loses an eye!”

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