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Why Intel's DRM strategy is flawed

I went to Intel's session on DTCP-IP this afternoon, and felt compelled to write something of an in-depth piece on what exactly I saw and was told at the briefing. My apologies for an article that is so text-heavy: stick with it, you'll enjoy it.

Speaking at the session this afternoon were Patrick Wong, a Technical Marketing Engineer in Intel's Viiv group, and Alec Main, the Chief Technology of Cloakware, which is a company that specialises in DTCP-IP implementations.

The outline of the article is thus:
  • I will briefly discuss the current situation and state of digital content
  • I will lay out Intel's stated goals for its vision of the digital home
  • I shall move on to explain how DTCP-IP fits into Intel's vision
  • I will then explain the problems with DRM and DTCP-IP
  • I will finally attempt to draw some conclusions about what Intel should do, going forward, to enable its vision of the digital home and make life great for consumers like you and I.

The current state of digital content

The issue at hand is: content protection. We're sure you know the battleground now: content owners want to lock down what you can do with the content that you buy or own. People like us want to be free to do whatever we want with that content, within the limits of the law. Companies like Intel appear to want to try and be the bridge-builder between those two camps, enabling the maximum functionality possible whilst keeping content producers happy.

The unfortunate situation is that there is some merit to the argument that anything that is developed going forward is going to be worse than we have now. Working under the tenets of US law (as I shall for the purpose of this article, for the sake of simplicity), people like you and I can go and buy a CD in the store, rip it to our machine losslessly, then stream it to our living room PC via a Slingbox, copy it to an iPod, PSP, wife's iPod, bedroom PC and car (or whatever combination of devices you happen to own). We can do that legally, under existing fair use laws. The content is ours, we do with it as we wish.

We work under the assumption that content providers want more money, and they believe they can get more money by limiting what you can do with the content you have bought. Thus, currently existing DRM systems do things like limiting the number of PCs you can transfer your music to, or making it so that you have to have a certain type of device to perform certain functionality (such as having a PlaysForSure MP3 player to move your Napster content around). There are problems with this approach, as I shall explain.

Intel's vision of the future

Intel has developed its Viiv entertainment PC to be an easy platform for the consumption of digital content. Intel envisages a future where you can sit down in front of your PC and download a new movie to watch. You can download some music, then stream it to a PC elsewhere in the house. You can download it to your MP3 player and take it on a walk. It hopes that digital media will be consumable in any device that has an Intel chip in it.

Content providers want to make sure that when you download that movie, they can control what you do with it, because control means money to them. This means that any device in Intel's digital future has to be compatible with DRM. Not only does the device need to be compatible, but you have to have a secure way of getting the content to the device - a secure link.

This is where Intel's vision of DTCP-IP comes in. It is a secure link technology that, using encryption, makes sure content can move between two DRM enabled devices without any possibility of interception, which would render the DRM scheme (and the content provider's business model) useless.

Today, Intel is promoting DTCP-IP to us as a link transmission protocol. Let's examine the issues they have presented in its tech session.

So what is DTCP-IP?

The acronym itself stands for Digital Transmission Content Protection over Internet Protocl (IP, as in, TCP/IP). It is a software standard that protects the link - in this case, IP-based - between two devices that are communicating.

A good analogy is with HDCP (High bandwidth digital content protection). HDCP protects a physical link, such as a cable: so, to play next-gen DVD content, you need a HDCP compliant DVD player which can transmit securely between its output, along a cable and to a compatible TV.

DTCP-IP means that if you have a Viiv PC, and then you have a streaming media adaptor upstairs, the content that flows through the air over your home wireless network is protected during transmission.

It does this by using 128-bit industry standard encryption. Devices have keys that are exchanged with each other to make sure that they are both compliant and secure. The upshot is that the content cannot be intercepted between devices.

DTCP-IP is DRM-agnostic: that is, it doesn't care what kind of content you give it, as long as the content provider has signed up to be compatible with the protocol. You can feed it Windows Media content, or HD-DVD content, or whatever other format: it converts it into a format the receiving device can understand automatically. This means that Viiv PCs sporting the protocol have to be capable of transcoding content between formats, and means that users shouldn't have to worry about codec problems or incompatibilies. The idea is that this makes for a great end-user experience of premium content.

Intel thinks DTCP-IP is great, because it means users don't have to worry about different DRM systems - about whether or not this music will work in this software and with this device, etc. It aims to make sure that all you need is Viiv, and all your content will work. Intel understands that too many applications, too many DRM systems, makes for a hard time for the consumer.

Is it DRM?

This is a slightly more complicated question than it would initially appear. Intel's answer is that this protocol is not DRM. Intel defines DRM as a set of rules that define how content can be used. They say that DRM is set by content providers, and that DTCP-IP is merely a conduit for DRM content; that it does not define how content can be used, merely makes sure that it is moved securely.

The aim

Let us not forget that Intel's aim here is to give every user a great digital home experience. Intel intends you to be able to get content onto your Viiv PC, to share it across your home and to share it across all the devices you own. Intel does not want to restrict how you use your content: it wants you to move it to as many places as possible, because if you have lots of devices and PCs in your home, that means more Intel chips being sold. It's in Intel's interest to get content everywhere, as flexibly and easily as possible.

However, what I will argue aver the following pages is that Intel is being incredibly naive in assuming that this scenario is going to pan out, and that users are going to have a great entertainment experience if Intel carries along its present course.