HOLLYWOOD, Calif. A consortium debuted in late September to create an electronic media specification that could be a successor to DVDs and MP3 files. An interview with its president and other members here shed more light on the plans and challenges for the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem.
DECE aims to write a specification by the end of 2009 for building network services that could act as a consumer's virtual digital media library. Based on a vision of "buy once, play anywhere," users would be able to access the services to play purchased content on a range of devices in and outside the home.
The effort represents the latest concepts in digital rights management. The new thinking is that users should have freedom to use content they have purchased within a limited domain of personal systems such as their TVs, computers, cellphones and car audio and navigation systems.
Content producers aim to set what they feel would be reasonable limits on those domains to prevent piracy. The limits would take the form of usage rules coded into security mechanisms.
Key to the concept is a "rights locker," a secure library that saves tokens describing what rights a user has purchased to particular songs or movies. Service providers would maintain these rights libraries as well as some way for users to find the content they want in the format appropriate for the device on which they want to play it.
"The only things people really buy are rights to play something," said a senior technology executive from one Hollywood studio who asked not to be named. "You don't buy the content of a $100 million movie," he said.
The work is still in an early stage. Currently the group is trying to define the user scenarios its specification should support. It hopes to announce those scenarios at the Consumer Electronics Show in January where it could also announce more members.
"We are in the very early stages of developing product attributes. This is just the beginning," said Mitch Singer, the president of DECE, a Sony executive and veteran of many past digital media consortia.
Next year the group will have to turn its attention to the even harder job of writing a spec that lets developers start building complaint services. If done right, the group hopes consumers would see those services as more compelling than today's alternatives that include free illegal downloads and proprietary services such as Apple Inc.'s iTunes.
For instance, a user could log on to his secure DECE service to play on a handset at the airport part of a digital movie he had purchased. Later, he could log on again to finish watching the movie at a hotel, a friend's house or at home.
"The challenge is to make that consumer promise come true," said Alan Bell, chief technology officer of Paramount Studios and a DECE member. "In the end, if the consumer experience is clunky, our time will have been wasted," said Bell, one of the fathers of the DVD on which the new scheme is modeled.
"Its way too early to tell if we are going to be successful, but we have the right companies talking," said Singer.
DECE members include six major studios—Fox, Lions Gate, NBC Universal, Sony (a corporate member), Paramount and Warner Bros. as well as a host of technology companies such as Alcatel-Lucent, Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Microsoft, Philips, Toshiba and Verisign. Best Buy and Comcast are also members.
Notably absent are Apple, which dominates the media player market, and Disney, which accounts for as much as 40 percent of the home video market. Their absence "isn't just a speed bump, it's a mountain range," said Richard Doherty, principal of consulting form Envisioneering (Seaford, N.Y.)
The good news is members "are all moving in the same direction," said Singer.
But the devil is in the details, and there are plenty of details ahead. For example, the group has yet to decide how many devices per user it will support.
It must also figure out whether it can replicate all the things users can do with their digital media today. For instance, users can easily sell or give away a DVD, but it's not clear if such scenarios would work with the DECE network services.
"To clean devices of content is very difficult, but not impossible and we are working on it," said Singer.
Even at this early stage, the effort is becoming complex.
"I just received a 26-page draft of the usage models. It's a huge document," said Jon Ferro, executive vice president of TV distribution at Lions Gate, speaking on a panel discussion at the Digital Hollywood Fall conference here. "There are multiple weekly conference calls and people are dedicating huge staffs to it," he added.
The DECE spec may push the boundaries of security and privacy, potentially using content watermarking, tracking of Internet protocol addresses or other forms of authentication.
"The more you know about the person, the more you are willing to grant them rights," said Brad Hunt, a digital media consultant and former executive with the Motion Picture Association of America now becoming involved with DECE. "The stronger the identification of the [user's] domain space, the more permissive the rights you can get from content owners," he said in the Digital Hollywood panel.
"We are moving to a time when future generations are not very secretive about what they are doing and accountability will be required to protect content," said Albhy Galuten, vice president of digital media strategy for Sony Corp, also on the panel. "I care less about my privacy than my parents did, and my kids care less than I did," he added.