The Future of Digital Rights Management

From A to Zune

Zune is trying some crazy things with DRM and Wi-Fi

A few events, actions, and legal battles will determine the future of DRM in the media world. For one, the court decisions on Microsoft's Windows Genuine Advantage, or WGA will determine just how much access major software makers have to your computer. So long as it doesn't completely dismantle your system, is it right for them to include protocols that burrow themselves in your registry to ensure you aren't a sneaky pirate? Or does that make them the pirate?

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Secondly, Sony's rootkit, which shares a lot with Microsoft's WGA, faces the same kind of questions. Although Sony won't soon be designing its own operating systems, it is still a huge vendor and its music ownership reaches far and wide. The actions it takes to protect the "3 copy" rule could determine how the moguls defend the compact disc before it is phased out completely (the end is near).

Finally, much of the future in digital media and protection depends on a little handheld device: Microsoft's Zune portable. This device plays both music and games and is embarking on a new journey in the winding path that has become DRM. The Zune itself is stepping outside of Microsoft's PlayForSure boundaries, allowing users to run both Windows Media files and Apple's popular AAC, or Advanced Audio Coding (the compression type associated with the ultra-popular iTunes and iPod).

Beyond that, the Zune possesses Wi-Fi technology. Microsoft is trying some radical new things with this, including the passing of songs from one peripheral to another. Let's say you're sitting in that cliché coffee shop when an attractive person walks in and takes a seat across the way. Of course they're listening to their Zune – bear with me – and what better way to introduce yourself than to simply ask, "what's that you're listening to, dear?" Microsoft is giving this situation some unique firsts. The most important one is the ability for one person to transfer a song from their Zune – wirelessly – to another. So, as quick as you ask, that good-looking human can send you the song they're listening to. Whether you continue to talk to them after your Zune instantly becomes infected with the Backstreet Boys is up to you, but the technology is certainly exciting.

This technology is also controversial because it stirs up surrounding DRM. For one, how can anyone regulate this kind of open environment? It literally is the air when we speak of wireless Internet.

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Although rumors of the service first suggested a one-day limit, now that the device has been launched Microsoft has officially designed the Wi-Fi transfer for three-day periods.

Of course, the hacking of the Zune's DRM will be equally fascinating. There will be those, almost undoubtedly, who discover a way to lengthen the time a file can remain on the device: first a week, then perhaps a year, then maybe as long as you wish. Already, there are reports that hackers can mask songs as images (which are not subject to DRM) and can pass them along to friends without the three-day limit.

For now, Microsoft is marketing the Zune as a solution to many of the DRM problems we've listed here. It doesn't exclusively seek out files compatible with Windows Media, and thus it essentially throws PlayForSure and everything it stands for out a sixth-story window. And yet, regulation is necessary. Ultimately, Microsoft will get their money, somehow.

Isn't that what DRM is all about?