Wal-Mart today announced it would sell digital music downloads with no anticopying software. The mega-retailer is offering songs released by record labels EMI Group and Universal Music Group, which are both experimenting with offering music without copy-protection software.
Such software, or DRM (digital rights management) software, prevents consumers from copying music or listening to it across multiple devices. Apple has launched iTunes Plus for DRM-free tracks. Amazon.com is also selling DRM-free music. Other record labels--Warner Music Group and Sony BMG Music Entertainment--said they are testing the impact such a move would have on music sales.
While movie studios and recording labels see DRM-like technology as a way to prevent piracy and unauthorized use of copyrighted content, tech companies say it unfairly limits consumers' access to and use of digital content. The two sides have long butted heads to protect their business models, and several representatives of the industries discussed the issue this morning at the Aspen Summit, an event put on by the Progress and Freedom Foundation, a Washington think tank.
Alan Bell, chief technology officer of Paramount Pictures, said a technology like DRM is essential to developing sustainable business models for content producers and distributors. Matthew Zinn, chief privacy officer of TiVo, firmly disagreed, saying that media companies need to end their "Gestapo-like" control over content. "Flexibility does not equal piracy," he said.
One of the most well-known recent copyright legal battles is between Viacom and Google's YouTube. Viacom sued Google for copyright infringement because unauthorized video clips were being posted on the video-sharing site.
Tom Rubin, Microsoft's top copyright attorney, pointed out the company's new video uploading Web site called Soapbox.com, which checks each video clip for copyright infringement before it is posted. He said the system helps "foster user-generated content and an ecosystem that respects the rights of all."
Such arrangements may increase the cost to both sides. Alan Davidson, who heads up Google's Washington office, said pre-screening content before it's posted online may be so expensive that it becomes "impractical." He also warned that pre-screening could create a gatekeeper for online content, which may ultimately limit free speech.
One problem pointed out in the discussion is that consumers' interests are not always represented when tech companies and content providers make such arrangements. For example, would video-sharing sites be as popular as they are today if the content is monitored more closely?
August 21, 2007; 3:13 PM ET
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