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IBM makes late DRM bid

xCP system backed by Intel, Matsushita and Toshiba

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IBM has thrown its hat into the ring as a late entrant into efforts to build sane and effective digital rights management. This week the company announced xCP - its eXtensible Content Protection system - at the US National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) event in Las Vegas.

IBM’s Almaden Research Center in San Jose has been quietly working on DRM systems for as long as we can remember, certainly for ten years, but when it first started out it mistakenly thought that the idea was only to build secure systems for the film-making process, with big ticket front ends, neglecting the mass market. With xCP it has gone back and re-engineered the entire idea for the Internet, peer to peer, piracy rich, age and come up with a credible architecture.

xCP is a one-way process for dropping not one, but multiple layers of encryption keys onto intelligent media playing devices in the home, be they set-tops, TiVos or other DVRs, Windows machines, MP3 players, digital TVs or DVD players. If the devices have a disk drive then they act as servers for the encryption keys and control the rights of the other, tethered devices.

The devices don’t get a say in which encryption key they sign up for, so this is a much easier scheme to bring into a home than previous PKI systems that have segregated public and private keys and which require a two way communication process to set them up. Now when a piece of film or music is copied from a commercial server, the keys can be automatically calculated and set working. When the content is copied, the keys are copied, until the content runs out of allocated rights.

There is one encryption key for all the devices to talk to each other and make content copies to one another, and another encryption key for every piece of media that can be used across all of the devices on the network. The second encryption key is decoded by the first and used to play music or film.

There is complex algorithmic calculation, which can be regularly re-calibrated when the network changes, and none of the keys, those protecting the media or those used for the devices to talk to each other, ever need to be known by a content purchaser, who just needs to what rights they have bought.

The scheme has been described in Association of Computer Machinery papers throughout last year, and IBM has now taken it into its marketing phase and used NAB to try and get support for it.

Sophisticated system

The IBM system seems more sophisticated than other similar systems from companies like Microsoft, which allow very simple rules relating to the number of copies that can be made, or the device types that a piece of media may go onto, and thereafter prevents copying completely.

In effect anyone that signs up to the IBM way of doing things will be building a set of inter-linked devices and will be able to buy any amount of rights for those devices that the content owner can imagine to sell.

The big issues for IBM now are political and financial. Which partners can it rely on right away, is the system going to be interoperable with other systems already out there, and what is it planning to charge device makers to run this scheme?

These are questions that IBM hasn’t addressed publicly but it has a strong relationships with Sony and Toshiba (working on the Cell chip manufacture together), and this project is expected to be offered in partnership with Intel, Matsushita, and Toshiba. The three founded 4C, an organization which licenses content protection technologies including the Content Protection System Architecture these four worked out in 2000 which the xCP Cluster Protocol was developed to be consistent with.

But IBM has not really described any process or language which will provide the syntax for stating the rights which are managed in this system, nor one that states accurately, different types of copy transactions, so it might easily adopt the ContentGuard work that has recently become an ISO standard and which might make interoperability with existing systems easy.

The big thing currently missing from the IBM equation is a big studio that is onside, so keep your eyes and ears open for such an announcement. Both Disney and Warner Brothers seemed to have backed Microsoft DRM, so it’s unlikely to be one of those.

© Copyright 2004 Faultline

Faultline is published by Rethink Research, a London-based publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter is an assessment of the impact of events that have happened each week in the world of digital media. Faultline is where media meets technology. Subscription details here.

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