Long Live (A Different) DRM!

At the SportsPro OTT USA event in March, held at Citi Field in Queens, New York, someone said, “DRM is dead” and dropped the microphone. And although my gut reaction was to immediately dismiss that statement, I’ve taken some time to reflect, and I think it deserves some more consideration.

DRM has always been a staple of streaming video providers. Using certificates and encryption, they can utilize DRM services as a layer of content protection, ensuring that only people who have the right to view content (such as those who have paid for it) can do so. But DRM has also been very contentious with consumers, as it limits where they can watch or store a digital asset. Many believe that once they purchase a digital asset, they should have the right to put it anywhere they want and watch it wherever they want, like they can with a DVD.

As a concept, DRM is perfectly valid. Content owners should be able to protect their content so that consumers don’t illegally share it. But consumers should be able to store that content wherever they want once they have purchased it. Yes, they only have rights to watch it (and not to copy or distribute it), but DRM shouldn’t be so constricting that other consumer rights—like wanting to watch it on another device, from a different media server, or in a different country than the one in which they purchased it—are restrained as well.

Managing the digital rights to a piece of content shouldn’t go away. Perhaps, though, the mechanism by which those rights are assured and protected should change, and maybe that’s what the mic drop at SportsPro OTT USA was about.

New technologies to handle identity, authentication, and ownership, such as blockchain and NFTs, hold a lot of promise to transform the way content owners protect and manage the digital rights to their assets. In a ledger-based approach, for example, it wouldn’t matter where the user was watching the asset. So long as the playback feature of the asset is connected to the ledger, the consumer’s right to watch the content can be authenticated.

Imagine a user’s crypto wallet containing all of the content they have purchased (such as the way NFTs are stored). When the user wants to play a piece of content, the player, connected to the wallet via an API or some other programmatic means, simply checks the wallet for the rights. The media interface, then, would be a thumbnail representation of content within the wallet, making it easy for users to find content from their collection that they want to watch.

This approach could even address subscriptions and episodic content as well (although in a slightly different fashion, because the consumer hasn’t purchased any of the digital assets), as the player has a thumbnail representation of all available content within the other OTT provider. So, imagine the user opening a Netflix app that is already authenticated against their crypto wallet. When a user clicks on a piece of content to watch it, Netflix ascertains their active subscription as an entry in the global ledger and allows the content to play.

The interesting thing about this approach is that encryption is no longer needed. No more exchanged certificates via the player and a certificate server in the DRM chain. As an immutable entity, the ledger is the source of truth for purchase (i.e., ownership) and access (i.e., subscription). This means the consumer can watch whatever they own wherever they want and “store” it however they see fit.

DRM as a concept is not going away, and it never should. But it does need to transform. The existing methods are too restrictive for consu­mers. But a ledger- and wallet-based approach not only frees the consumer to handle their media the way they want, it also assures the continuity of digital rights for the content owner.

Long live (a different) DRM.