Select your localized edition:

Close ×

More Ways to Connect

Discover one of our 28 local entrepreneurial communities »

Be the first to know as we launch in new countries and markets around the globe.

Interested in bringing MIT Technology Review to your local market?

MIT Technology ReviewMIT Technology Review - logo


Digital Rights Management

Ranjit Singh

Sitting in his office in McLean, Va., Ranjit Singh is at ground zero of what may be the biggest-and bloodiest-of the many battles that will shape the Internet during the 21st century’s initial decade. The battle lines are sharply drawn. On one side are owners of intellectual property, or content: books, music, video, photographic images and more. On the other are Internet users-think Napster-who want content to be freely distributed.

And then there is Singh, president of ContentGuard, a company that spun out of research at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) on a mission to commercialize content protection in a wired world. “The Internet changes everything,” says Singh, 48, an England-born technology manager whose resume glitters with senior positions at Xerox, Citibank and Digital Equipment plus a number of startups. “The Internet,” Singh continues, “allows perfect reproduction of digital content and totally frictionless distribution.” A few mouse clicks sends a work to millions of users, but the creators and owners of the content won’t necessarily collect dime one ( see ” Your Work Is Mine  !” TR November/December 2000 ).

Ouch! You can bet the pain felt by content owners who see their stuff flying everywhere via the Net will translate into action. Which is what Singh and ContentGuard are about. Digital rights management, or DRM, is “the catalyst for a revolution in e-content,” says Singh. “DRM will allow content owners to get much wider and deeper distribution than ever before,” he maintains. “You can see who is passing your content to whom.”

Stripped to its essence, DRM-as provided by ContentGuard and a number of competitors-amounts to an encryption scheme with a built-in e-business cash register. Content is encoded, and to get the key a user needs to do something-maybe paying money, maybe providing an e-mail address. DRM providers deliver the protection tools; it is up to content owners to set the conditions. ContentGuard uses a “multiple key” approach to content protection; anyone who received bootleg content would have to crack into it all over again. Thus, Singh explains, “even if a hacker cracks into a piece of content, he cannot distribute it.”

So why isn’t DRM ubiquitous? Two reasons. First, content owners are in the midst of a hard rethink about both pricing and distribution. Suddenly they are wrestling with issues of how to price three listens to a song, say, or a download of a low-resolution image that cannot be forwarded to others. “Content owners now are trying out different economic models for valuing content,” says Singh, whose company provides DRM tools to, among others, John Wiley & Sons and Houghton Mifflin. “DRM opens many possibilities,” he adds.

The second issue may be the more nettlesome: “The user experience has to hide the complexity of the protection technologies,” says Singh. Users need to be able to buy the content they want “without needing special viewers or downloads and without putting the user through hoops,” he argues. To resolve that, ContentGuard has forged multiple partnerships with digital standard-bearers such as Microsoft and Adobe Systems, and has extended its technology so that it applies across many media, including books, music and video.

Captivating as the possibilities of DRM are, it is still in its early days. Says John Schwarz, CEO of Reciprocal, Inc., a distributor of ContentGuard and other DRM solutions: “We are probably a year or so away from seeing broad adoption of DRM by the marketplace.”

Some analysts are more skeptical: “I’m not convinced content can be protected in the Internet era,” says Eric Scheirer, who tracks DRM issues for Forrester Research. “People want flexible access to content.” Proof is Napster, of course, which represents a phenomenon Scheirer calls “unstoppable.” Even if Napster is put out of business by the courts, he predicts that the frictionless distribution of digital content among the millions of Internet users will live on.

But Singh is betting heavily that DRM will prevail and, ironically, he thanks Napster. “Napster turned this whole issue into a CEO-level question. The very highest corporate officers now are looking into content management issues, and they want to protect their property.”

That, says Singh, augurs wider use of DRM. “Here’s the virtual cycle you will see: The more content a business puts online, the faster it will want to put still more content up, because it will see the economic benefits and users will see the benefits of gaining access to more content. That’s why we are seeing an explosion here.”

Others in Digital Rights

Organization Project

InterTrust Technologies (Santa Clara, Calif.)

Develops peer-to-peer distributed DRM technology

Reciprocal (New York)

DRM clearinghouse

Digimarc (Tualatin, Ore.)

Watermarking to embed an imperceptible code
Alchemedia (San Francisco) “Clever Content” platform safeguards digital content