Do you really "own" that song you bought on iTunes? Have you ever even thought about it? Chances are, if you have ever considered digital property at all, it's been in terms of piracy and intellectual property-or, in short, from the creator's perspective. But as ebooks take off, actual CDs go the way of the dodo, and we spend more money on digital products of all kinds, tricky issues surrounding digital rights management-or the lack thereof-abound and one group is trying to do something about it. The Working Group developing IEEE P1817, a new Standard for Consumer-Ownable Digital Personal Property, is currently being formed. It will hold its first meeting July 14, at Huawei North America Headquarters in Santa Clara, Calif.
"What if physical goods couldn't be owned?" asks Paul Sweazey, chair of the P1817 Working Group. "The world would be in chaos."
Think about it like this: if you bought a CD at the store, got it home and realized you could only play it on a Sony CD player you would be very confused, and probably demand your money back. Yet, until Apple changed its DRM policies recently, songs bought through the iTunes store could only be played on an iPod-not on your Sansa or other MP3 player. Sweazey explains: DRM emulates unownable services (e.g., rental, subscription); plain files emulate unownable public goods; P1817 emulates ownable private goods. He adds, "It's silly not to have ownable digital goods, and it's easier and simpler than DRM to create. It's just that it must be an open, global standard, so the IEEE is doing it."
"This is interesting to me because it speaks to the complexity and the breadth of the device landscape," says Ned May, director and lead analyst at Outsell, Inc. "There are definitely standards that have emerged [like MP3s]. It's a mix of organic and market driven evolution, but this is a lot more complex... This is multiple forms of media across all different kinds of industries."
Of course, the IEEE Standard Association is not the only group that has noticed the DRM problem and tried to do something about it. The Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE) says it is developing "an exciting new way to buy, access, and play digital entertainment." As Jef Pearlman pointed out in a Jan. 15, 2010, post on Publicknowledge.org, DECE has a few problems of its own. The "buy once, play anywhere" model DECE promotes already exists in DRM-free products. More importantly, "anywhere" really means "anywhere that is DECE approved." In essence, it's just a different kind of rights management.
"DECE is a great project, aimed at erasing as many of the barriers as possible to giving consumers that ownership feeling and sense," says Sweazey. "It will not, however, give consumers actual ownership of products." The IEEE standard would aim to allow owners of digital products to share them the same way you would the equivalent physical product with a friend or family member, without allowing the "stranger sharing" often regarded as piracy.
"The number one challenge will be to educate that P1817 isn't building a content protection system; rather, it is creating the digital equivalent of private goods-ownable personal property," says Sweazey. "Most of the conflicts between consumers and suppliers exist because they think that they own what they buy, but this isn't yet true for digital products. Consumers are continually surprised and dismayed by this."
Many consumers, however, will not see the difference between simply buying a DRM-free product, and one that meets the still non-existent IEEE standard. More to the point, they may not see how it benefits them. "For the purposes of P1817, we are using the consumer notion of ownership as our guide," Sweazey says, "meaning that we are working toward what human beings mean when they say they own something, summarized by, ‘If I own it, then it's nobody's business what I do with it.'"
Buyers, though, already have that in DRM-free files, like songs ripped from a CD, or a copy made by a friend. So what's in it for them? According to Sweazey, "The only thing that I know that you can't do with a P1817 product and that you can to with a plain file is to share it with strangers. And even that isn't blocked, it's just that the certain consequence is that some stranger will steal from you."
At the moment, though, the Working Group developing IEEE P1817 consists largely of lawyers, rather than engineers, and the organization is looking for more input. "The technology aspects of the P1817 project are straightforward, and it's mostly a matter of selecting and assembling the constituent algorithms and protocols appropriate for an open, global standard," says Sweazey. With the first meeting scheduled for July, it will no doubt be some time before there is an actual standard, and even longer still until we see if it is at all effective or enforceable. Even Sweazey is not sure what the true outcome will be: "It could be simple and weak: Companies advertise that they conform to the standard, and hopefully they do. It could be formal and strong: The IEEE and others could lobby governments for legal protections of digital personal property... It could be something in between: a compliance and robustness regime established by a consortium of companies."
"The market leader never calls for open standards," says May. In other words, Apple is not out there looking for a standard regarding consumer-ownable digital products. And if the big guys in the digital product space-like Apple or Amazon-don't sign on, it's hard to say if the standard has a chance of making a real difference. May adds, "There needs to be an incentive to adopt it."
Sweazey says, "In the end, the solution to rational, peaceful, global commerce in downloadable digital products will involve the evolution of copyright law so that it properly discerns between the copying of bits and the counterfeiting of products. Before that can occur, the technology for that discernment must first exist. The first mission of P1817 is to standardize the discerning technology."
For more information on P1817, visit http://grouper.ieee.org/groups/1817/.