digital rights – selling media on the web (1999)

It was two years ago a pocket audio device appeared that could play MP3 song files downloaded from the Internet. Taking shape as Diamond’s Rio player or ‘webman’ (illustrated) it surely seemed like a nice taste of the future – except for the fact that they are not just kept in shops – people actually buy and use these things. I surprise myself that this column attached any significance to the device when it appeared.

What happened is that the Internet, not content with being a vast brochure, library – whatever has become a vast jukebox. If you use a mixture of technical skill, persistence and luck, you will find copies of Madonna’s and Blur’s latest – all for free, all ready for the portable player or the computer hard disc. This trade of free MP3 songs, after junk mail and pornography, is the next biggest thing on the Internet.

Rio player

These days you can buy games, books and music from www.amazon.co.uk but it’s only the old fashioned stuff they have to post to you: until media goes digital that’s fair enough. When that happens, a whole range of interesting pay-per-play options open up. If there’s little trade in digital material just now, part of the reason is the lack of a mechanism for controlling what is sold.

This is set to change with the appearance of software that can manage access to digital material. By using Magex – a system recently launched by NatWest, a major UK bank, a publisher can control access to music, film, games software or even a written report. Publishers, or content providers as they will be known, can use ‘Magex Packager’ – a technology developed by digital rights management specialists ‘Intertrust’, to place say, a song into a secure electronic ‘DigiBox’ container. They then apply a set of rules that govern how the consumer will use it. These rules allow them to set when others can access the contents. They can specify whether the buyer can copy a game to another machine, whether a song can only be played on the system onto which it was licenced or whether use ceases when say, a membership subscription expires.

Here then is copyright protection to give content providers the confidence to place intellectual property onto the Internet. Provided that the consumer can not save the content outside the container it remains tamper proof.

Coming from a bank, you can imagine that the software manages a payment system. When the publisher seals their electronic ‘DigiBox’, they can set the price for printing, saving, viewing or listening. They can set several interesting payment options ranging from a one–off peep, through pay–as–you–play, to an outright buy. Online traders can experiment with selling single tracks off an album, a chapter of a business report or extra discounts for impulse buying.

Buyers register for the Magex service online and receive the software that opens a DigiBox container. They also have a PC–based desktop electronic wallet into which they can load the money they will need to buy digital goods. When they open a DigiBoxâ container, they see options such as view, listen, print together with the charges for each. As the consumer uses the content the software debits their wallet. At pre–set intervals, the transaction details are uploaded to Magex, who then settle up with the content provider. Similarly, when electronic funds run low, a connection to Magex will debit the consumer’s credit card.

As payments are electronic, even fairly small fees, so-called micro payments as little as a few pence – can feasibly be charged. This means that we may see more pay-for-a-play games, or pay-for features such as additional lives, new characters and levels. The upshot could well be access to consumers who rarely buy games and music – and would never be seen in a shop that sells such stuff. 

It is early days but already Magex, and iGroup, the e-business unit of Computacenter are in a pilot to encourage music labels to make tracks with digital commerce. Intertrust’s digital rights management software, called PowerChord, will ensure that digital music, even though it might be freely distributed, is only released with the security blanket of persistent protection. (Roger Frost 1999)

Contacts:

Internet music pilot: www.cranberrygrove.net

Magex: www.magex.com

Intertrust: www.intertrust.com

IGroup: igroup.computacenter.com

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