SMPTE Newswatch Masthead
  4 December 2012
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NW1Hot Button Discussion

DRM Drama 

By Michael Goldman 


Digital Rights Management (DRM), at its most basic level, has traditionally been considered as the strategic use of technology to monitor and enforce intellectual property licensing agreements by controlling access to digital content as it is being distributed, protecting it from unauthorized use or downright theft. In the modern world, however, the notion of "broadcasting video" now includes over-the-air terrestrial signal distribution, along with cable, satellite, Internet, and mobile/data network broadcasting of content to, seemingly, an unlimited number of viewing devices. In that universe, the DRM label represents a constantly evolving, often proprietary, network of technologies and protocols used by broadcasters to secure the links of a content chain wherever those links are heading.


That is the view of Adam Goldberg, principal of AGP, LLC, a company that consults with digital content companies regarding distribution, security, and regulatory issues they might encounter. Goldberg suggests the old axiom that "the chain is only as strong as its weakest link." This is particularly apropos, meaning that DRM systems and methods should address a lot more than a good encryption scheme and a robust database to track rights.


"It's not as simple as the cable head end encrypts [content data] and the cable set-top boxes decrypt it, and that's it," Goldberg explains. "That is part of DRM, but not an entire system. For one thing, the set-top box needs to know where it is permissible to send the content once it is received [within a home network]. More importantly, there needs to be a way for the cable head end to receive encrypted content. The typical fiber link from wherever the content comes from into the head end also needs to be protected with some sort of conditional access or DRM system. There are a handful of off-the-shelf or nearly off-the-shelf things you can buy to simply send [encrypted] content from a network to affiliates, but if the content is going more places than that [networks], build proprietary systems. The more places the content can go, the more complicated [a DRM system] gets. All DRM systems [from major broadcasters] are proprietary in a sense that there are naturally secrets involved in securing content. Protecting [how content is distributed] is, in a lot of ways, resistant to standardization because there are secrets involved."

Goldberg describes the nature of the technological work being done on DRM as "an arm's race," in the sense that it needs to be, by definition, highly proprietary, highly secretive, and constantly changing. This is because the state-of-the-art needs to keep pace with the work being done by hackers and pirates to get past constantly evolving security schemes. Indeed, DRM remains a crucial issue in the industry today, particularly because it can't be precisely mandated or standardized for these reasons.


Meanwhile, Goldberg and others say the industry is delving into other approaches for allowing broadcasters to protect content and know and control where it goes.


The problem in building more secure DRM systems, however, is not today's encryption schemes, Goldberg says. The Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) and the Data Encryption Standard (DES) that preceded it are both reliable and widely in use, he says, adding, "typically, whatever vulnerabilities there are to security systems, is not due to the encryption algorithms at the core. That is a strong link--but different systems have different vulnerabilities somewhere else along the line, whereby someone who is well funded and determined could capture content before or after encryption, or get hold of data keys along the way."


DRM turns into an arm's race more in the realm of the variables regarding what is required to move data through different platforms, systems, and networks, as well as in and around home networks, Goldberg says. Different systems, he suggests, have different vulnerabilities and some are more susceptible than others.

"Pirates are searching for those weak links," Goldberg says. "A weak link where they can get in and be isolated, somehow, from being caught. There is a whole arm's race of [systems improving] and then being compromised and then improving again, and so it goes. It is like the safecracker and the safe manufacturing company. The safecracker learns how to crack the current state of the art, and then the safe manufacturer makes better state of the art."


Goldberg says the industry's current work to improve such systems is hard to discuss in detail in the light of day because it all revolves around the aforementioned "secrets" that DRM systems depend on, but which content distributors do not want to publicize while striving to thwart ever-probing pirates. Generally, current improvements revolve around the industry's larger strides with interoperability--the quest to streamline data files to make them easier to push into many different platforms simultaneously, including carrying complex embedded security keys inside the larger data stream. "That idea is being developed," he says. "It shouldn't be a surprise that the interoperability issue is something that the industry is working on."


Another evolving approach involves delivering content to home networks, where the imagery is processed on the receiving end. RVU technology, for example, relies on the notion of delivering content around the home-content that is controlled and processed by a single server in the home, rather than requiring separate receivers on each television. This strategy, created by a consortium of content service providers and consumer electronics companies, relies on the home server to composite different pieces (audio, video, graphics) of a show together and then distribute the finished product to televisions throughout the home. DirectTV started incorporating RVU into its home DVR strategy (dubbed Genie ) in 2011, and other satellite providers are following suit. The remote user interface (RUI) approach, which permits a single DVR for all televisions, is the innovation that most excites consumers who have RVU technology. However, it is the end-user compositing capability of RVU home servers that makes them innovative from a DRM point of view.

"The idea is sort of analogous to HDMI-where it is just a content source and a content display involved," Goldberg adds. Increasingly, content providers are interfacing with home networks, and keeping content secure during transmission is a big reason for these developments, he says.


Goldberg also notes that there is the notion of cloud-based VOD systems such as theUltraViolet media service from a consortium of studios, networks, telcos, and hardware manufacturers. UltraViolet clients own UV-ready viewing devices that allow them to watch any content they wish to purchase, collect, and store with UltraViolet on any UV device they own at any time. If you buy physical media such as a DVD, sometimes a digital copy of that content is provided through the UltraViolet network on any additional devices at no extra cost. The content only works with UV viewing devices, so rights and permissions are obvious; content can be viewed only on UV devices that were made for UV. This strategy also addresses one of the core complaints of the vocal anti-DRM movement--that legitimate consumers who pay for content are unable to easily copy and convert it for viewing on different devices or in different locations due to the hierarchy of restrictions content creators feel required to place on the intellectual property they distribute.


"It's a system that does not solve any arbitrary engineering problem, but it does have a way to keep track of who owns what rights, what the content, is and who can use it within those constraints," Goldberg explains. "If that model ends up being the way that we manage rights ownership in the future, then a [UV] device with a network connection can be all [the consumer] needs. That sort of solves the DRM operability problem by saying to heck with it; we'll make one place, one way for clients to get the content and licenses, and they can figure out [by purchasing UV devices] how to connect to it, rather than the [distributor] trying to figure out how to connect to the end user."

These, of course, are pay services that may have the potential to protect content and manage DRM needs more efficiently than free broadcasters, but because they are not free, Goldberg points out it will be hard for them to supplant broadcast and cable/satellite services any time soon. Additionally, DRM has other components that are important to broadcasters, particularly the need for sophisticated rights databases (and frequently, a dedicated staff to input rights' information into those databases), and also the ability to receive impression data back from users. Many manufacturers, ranging from Microsoft to RSG Media, have been addressing this need with sophisticated tools for many years.


The real reason behind the ongoing arm's race in DRM revolves around how best to protect digital content as it goes out to consumers, and that race continues unabated. Developments currently under way will not change or eliminate the problem of piracy facing the video content industry, Goldberg adds, but potentially, they will have the potential to "displace or make less widely used pirated content" in the long run, in his opinion.

News Briefs

Year of the 4K Camera  

As 2012 winds down, the Studio Daily website recently took a look at the rapid growth and evolution of 4k motion picture camera technologies in the past year. The comprehensive article, by Bryant Frazer, offers specifications and comparisons on the various 4k options currently available from eight different manufacturers, as well as links for those wishing to do further research on any of them. Frazer notes that the article is not designed to debate the nature of what, exactly, constitutes true 4k image capture, but rather, strives to examine all professional systems that output what he calls "some kind of 4k image," one way or another. He also offers up a handy chart that lists key specs for 10 different camera systems that have become available in the past 15 months.


ENG Options  

On the other side of the image capture spectrum, Broadcast Engineering magazine published an interesting article in November, examining the myriad of new digital SLR-based HD ENG camera systems available to television news and other videographers. The article, by Michael Grotticelli, notes that the rise of single lens reflex cameras capable of recording full motion 1080p video on a single CMOS sensor has "literally changed the game" when it comes to newsgathering-style applications. The reason is that such cameras can produce high-quality imagery at very modest prices, but at the same time, that particular marketplace has become somewhat confusing because different manufacturers offer different features, making it difficult for some customers to sort. Nevertheless, the ENG market, according to the article, has suddenly become extremely competitive price-wise; with plenty of new CMOS-style devices now competing heavily with traditional CCD image sensor cameras, resulting in more options than ever before.

Nano Circuits 

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have taken another step forward in the quest to create faster, smaller, lower voltage, higher performing electronic circuits by moving them out of the silicon realm using a form of nano technology. In a recent report on their findings, the researchers said they have figured out a way to imprint so-called nanoscale particles, or nanocrystals, made out of Cadmium selenide, onto flexible plastics using a technique similar to ink-jet printing. Once imprinted, those sheets could potentially serve as circuits in different types of electronic devices. In their report, professor Cherie Kagan of the school's Department of Electrical and Systems Engineering claims that the Cadmium selenide nanocrystal circuits "can move electrons 22 times faster than in amorphous silicon." Their report suggests the circuits could not only end up being faster than current technologies, but could have the added advantage of being able to operate at milder temperatures. Thus, electronic devices of the future could be built using more flexible plastic housings than are currently available.