The Evolving World of DRM

DRM The world of digital rights management (DRM) - the hardware and software used to secure content - is stable and has become a fairly routine enabling service for cable operators. There are, however, some significant changes that will gradually shift the focus - and make DRM a bit more complex in some ways and simpler in others - during the next few years.

Right now, the programming offered by cable operators is primarily protected by Microsoft PlayReady, Adobe Primetime and Google’s Widevine. Thing are under control, said Arnaud Perrier, the vice president of solutions and marketing at Envivio (NASDAQ: ENVI). “Most operators have figured out how to get coverage using a combination of the [main types of DRM available],” he said. “It’s not so much confusing. It’s more a question of operator constraints, and cost constrains as well. There are multiple royalties and licenses.”

The DRM world mirrors the adaptive bitrate streaming world in that there are a number of techniques that are discrete but highly similar at their cores. DRM, said Perrier, uses 128-bit Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) technology. The ways in which the keys are handled and secured are a bit different. The sense is that most of what separates DRM systems is on the business and competitive side.

But those potential changes are big. DRM is being asked to do more than it did in the past - and it is becoming a bigger target. Christopher Schouten, Nagra’s senior director of product marketing, said the maturation and ever-growing popularity of over-the-top (OTT) models is increasing demand on DRM. He said the rise of OTT is in the process of making it a co-equal target to hackers who have previously focused on traditional cable, telco and satellite content streams.

Crackers always are looking for new worlds to exploit, and OTT is promising. “Perhaps five years ago, at the beginning of the OTT boom, Nagra may not have been able to offer solutions to OTT providers that were equivalent to broadcast content solutions," Schouten said. “Systems have evolved to the point at which a single content protection system protects any network over any device that is anywhere.”

Perhaps the biggest transition is that the various platform providers are becoming more competitive and, for that reason, are likelier than in the past to make it difficult to use more than one DRM solution. Richard Frankland, Irdeto’s vice president of sales for the Americas, said a recent trend is for owners of DRM solutions to mandate that their approach only be used. This tendency toward fragmentation - which counters the overall trend in telecommunications to drive efficiency - is likely to grow.

Apple, said Frankland, has recently said that using other DRM approaches slows down performance on their devices. That is leading the company to limit DRM to its FairPlay system. That could create a domino effect in which platform owners force a fragmentation of the DRM platforms.

Much of the heavy lifting of supporting each platform with its own DRM solution will be done by a group of vendors happy to take on the task. It likely will be done in the cloud. Cable operators won’t be happy, however. “It’s problematic,” Frankland said. “Everyone would have to support default systems. If there are multiple DRMs, you have to provide different versions of the same content on different platforms. The burden on operators is not insignificant. There are costs and complications.”

The world of DRM is not done evolving. Perrier said there is a lot of work to do on “truly” premium content, such as high ticket sporting events such as the Olympics or movies being offered very close to their theatrical release dates. “Currently, people are not quite comfortable delivering [this class of content] to multiple devices. They want to see some hardening of the technology. All the vendors are looking at how to further leverage hardware-based technology in the devices themselves.”

A parallel trend is reworking the delivery of DRM. Schouten noted that while the worlds of DRM and conditional access (CA) are fundamentally different, each brings things to the table that can be used to buttress the other: CA technology is adept at handling authorization tasks simultaneously for large groups of subscribers. DRM excels in securing content to a far wider range of devices and platforms. The goal, he suggests, is for each to borrow from the others’ approach.

The key, he said, is to find ways to offer DRM, especially as OTT grows. “OTT grew up quickly with a lot of very fast innovations,” he said. “That encourages a patchwork approach. [The challenge is:] How can we find a way to do it more efficiently? With less over IT spending, less staff to operate the solution and fewer vendors to manage? How can we make it easier for ourselves?”

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