Digital media for a new communication age

Leonardo Chiariglione

Content media have always played an important role in society and waves of technologies have been applied to make creation of content media easier, distribution more efficient and use more enjoyable. The complexity of many of these technologies and the breadth of communication forms have prompted the establishment of value-chains connecting creators of media content and end-users with a number of “value-chain users” performing an increasingly complex range of roles.

Because of the importance content media have for the well-being of society Public Authorities have traditionally reserved to themselves the role of looking after some portions of some value-chains, particularly those linked to the notion of “public service” such as telephone, radio and television etc., while keeping a more hands-off attitude with other value-chains such as photograph, audio and video recording, etc. Today the roles, rights and duties of various value-chain users such as authors, publishers, producers, connectivity service providers, retailers, end-users etc. are variously regulated depending on specific value-chains, especially the type of delivery media such as paper, radio channel, package media etc.

Some 20 years ago the Compact Disc brought digital technologies to millions of end-users and since about a decade digital signal processing has dramatically expanded the application range of media. As a result it is now more convenient to create, handle, distribute and experience content media. Another feature of digital technologies is their ability to overcome scarcity, a basic limitation of analogue media. Scarcity has been the principal business enabler of content media in the analogue world, because analogue duplication and distribution were costly and time consuming and yielded poor results while digital duplication and distribution is instantaneous, inexpensive and flawless. Media scarcity of yore has become abundance of today with the added advantage that different value-chain users can easily get perfect digital content media.

Abundance of digital media is particularly important to end-users who have now at their disposal manifold means to acquire digital content media inexpensively or even for free. While common sense would suggest that some of those means should be outright illegal, the intermingling of digital technologies with laws that have been designed having in mind analogue media often makes application or extension of those laws and regulations clash with common sense. The result is that some of the existing value-chains are finding it increasingly difficult to sustain their businesses. This has several impacts, the most relevant of which is probably the inability to obtain sufficient revenues to keep on feeding the value-chains with appealing content.

Different companies and organisations are facing this complex situation with very different agendas. Some are bent on protecting their traditional roles, others try to expand these and still others see this epochal transition as an opportunity to radically change the rules governing existing value chains creating roles that did not even exist before.

The last few years have provided ample examples of each of these legitimate desires. The complex interplay, however, of old and new value-chain users has often given rise to what could be described as a "Wild Wild West" of digital media. The problem with this is that society may lose the ability to continue creating new content - the lifeblood of the information society. It is also profoundly unjust because those who create lose the ability to be compensated for their efforts. Moreover the use of proprietary solutions for content media distribution can also lead to media monopolies that are hardly compatible with a democratic society.

Doing nothing is not an option. For years end-users have been accustomed to get media content from a variety of sources in an interoperable way. It can hardly be expected that they will willingly accept serious limitations to their “freedom of choice” imposed on them by proprietary solutions. Instead they could well cling to existing supplies of “free content”. This would in turn lead to a tightening of legal actions that will further complicate the social side of an already complex problem.

The issues above were the background that triggered the launch of the Digital Media Manifesto as a grass-roots movement in July 2003. After 3 months of work by email and WWW the Digital Media Manifesto was published with the recommendation to establish the Digital Media Project (DMP) as a not-for-profit organisation with the mission to “promote continuing successful development, deployment and use of Digital Media that respect the rights of creators and rights holders to exploit their works, the wish of end users to fully enjoy the benefits of Digital Media and the interests of various value-chain players to provide products and services, according to the principles laid down in the Digital Media Manifesto”. The recommendation has been implemented and the Digital Media Project has been established in Geneva in December 2003.

The Digital Media Project takes the position that digital technologies are an asset of mankind that should be used to improve the role of creators, end-users and the multitude of other value-chain users, and that this goal can be achieved by standardising appropriate protocols at suitably identified interfaces. This is the DMP formulation of the often undefined proposition of “Interoperable Digital Rights Management” (DRM) that circulates in some environments.

Digital technologies have already shown their ability to innovate value-chains and DMP specifications should not be conceived to limit such possibility. On the other hand DMP cannot make assumptions on which shape future value-chains will take. If it did otherwise it would likely favour the evolution of certain value-chain users to the detriment of others. Therefore DMP can only work on today’s value-chains, but standardising on the functions performed by today’s value-chain users makes no sense because there is no guarantee that in the future value-chain users will continue to exist in their current form.

The problem can be solved by noting that today’s value-chain users perform functions that are a combination of “primitive functions” that are typically “re-used by" or "shared with" other value-chain users. Therefore DMP should standardise protocols supporting primitive functions because the functions performed by future value-chain users will likely consist of different combinations of today’s primitive functions with the possible addition of some new primitive functions.

DMP is well advanced in this process of standardising primitive functions. In July 2004 it has already issued a Call for Proposals for Portable Audio and Video Devices (PAV). The Call makes reference to a set of requirements for primitive function, viz.

The deadline for submitting proposals in response to the Call is the 20th of October 2004. Proposals will be considered at the next DMP meeting on 27-29 October in Barcelona where the first working draft will be created. The PAV specification will be approved and published in April 2004.

It should be clear, however, that with this specification DMP has just begun its work. DMP is currently developing requirements for primitive functions performed across today’s entire value-chain using inputs from individual companies or trade organisations that represent different value-chain users. With this work DMP is targeting the development of two specifications

that will

The IDP/IED Call for Proposals will be issued in October 2004 and the specifications approved and published in October 2005.

IDP and IED will be “tool-kit” specifications, in the sense that value-chain users wishing to set up value-chains supporting specific “Digital Media Business Models” will have the possibility to do so with the following advantages:

Value-chains operate as business agreements entered into by value-chain users and supported by a technology. In the case of DMP the value-chains are enabled by an ecosystem of independent suppliers of conforming products. Therefore value-chain users must have the means to ascertain that other parties to the agreements do indeed make use of conforming products. To respond to this need DMP will develop Recommended Practices for End-to-End Conformance (EEC) so that value-chain users can make reference to appropriate clauses in their business agreements intended to be executed on IDP and IED. This document will be approved and published in July 2006.

The DMP work plan described so far is a challenging effort because of the sheer span and complexity of the content media value-chain. However, it is also a manageable effort because the technologies that are needed to develop the IDP and IED specifications are largely available. Unlike other technology areas, however, DRM technologies can generate important side-effects.

As an example consider the case of a producer who is using the work of an author to produce a piece of content. The set of rights he acquires cannot be extended “beyond” those he has received and this applies in turn to all the value-chain users to whom the piece of content is licensed. This possibility of a value-chain user “upstream” to set conditions on a value-chain user “downstream” is a normal practice in all value-chains but is likely to conflict with “Traditional Rights and Usages” that value-chain users, particularly end-users, have enjoyed for decades in the analogue age, some of which were enshrined by law, some other by “exceptions” to the law, and still some others by custom. It goes without saying that Traditional Rights and Usages are different for different value-chains and jurisdictions.

The conclusion is that even though DMP can develop an Interoperable DRM specification, its use is likely to encounter many difficulties – if not outright rejection – on the part of some users – particularly end-users – if means to resolve these kind of conflicts are not found. DMP is addressing this problem by developing and publishing a “Recommended Action on Mapping of Traditional Rights and Usages to the Digital Space” in October 2005. Such a document would serve the purpose of facilitating the deployment and adoption of Interoperable DRM solutions based on DMP specifications by providing a neutral description of the potential problems arising in their use and designing scenarios enabled by specific technical and legal choices. DMP has collected and analysed a large number of Traditional Rights and Usages and is developing a Call for Contributions for publication in October 2004.

In addition to this Recommended Action, DMP is planning to develop more Recommended Actions on: