Congress Ponders DRM Standardization

WASHINGTON - Should consumers who purchase media on one platform, like Apple’s iTunes, be able to play them on another, like Windows Media Player? Congress is considering a single Digital Rights Management protocol that will force interoperability.

But many businesses are hesitant.

Congressmen Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) and Howard Berman (D-Calif.) convened the House subcommittee on Intellectual Property to debate the merits of instituting a single plan, but some business leaders advocate letting the market decide.

"Marketplace forces will continue to drive innovation in the DRM arena with attendant consumer benefits,” said Napster CTO William Pence, “while gradually solving the interoperability problem,"

Pence envisioned “new ways to enjoy digital music at a variety of different price points” rather than adopting a uniform protocol.

“This interoperability issue is of concern to me since consumers who bought legal copies of music from Real (Networks) could not play them on an iPod," countered Smith.

Smith regretted that Apple representatives chose not to attend the hearing. “Companies with 75 percent market share of any business, in this case the digital download market, need to step up to the plate when it comes to testifying on policy issues that impact their industry,” he said. “Failure to do so is a mistake."

The controversy highlights companies’ desire to have proprietary rights to media, Congress’ goal of regulating standards, and some consumer wishes not to have standards at all.

Apple has been battling anti-DRM activists who have hacked iTunes to allow non-clients to download music and play it on multiple hardware. While the songs are in MP3 format and thus may be copied more than Apple’s FairPlay DRM allows, the creators of hack program PyMusique note that the songs are still purchased at Apple’s price.

Standardization detractors noted Apple’s dominance of the desktop market in the mid-80s as an example of the perils of a closed system approach. Ray Gifford, president of the Progress and Freedom Foundation, further warned the panel that a mandatory digital standard adoption might favor one group over another.

"For public policy makers, we can never forget the lessons of public choice theory, which predicts that firms and interest groups will seek government favor in promoting their standards solution and handicapping their rivals," Gifford said. "Any call for the government to prefer one standard or model over another must be subject to most exacting skepticism."