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Digital rights within reach

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by Richard Karpinski

At the recent Seybold Seminars event in San Francisco, digital rights management (DRM) technology occupied its own four-session track. That's not surprising, given the increasing importance of this emerging technology.

But even the participants in the track's main roundtable found it difficult to find common ground on DRM, realizing-in a classic indication that a market is still in its infant, early adopter stages-that each of them was prepared to address DRM from a very different perspective.

"We had an interesting [DRM] roundtable group," said Mike Violano, VP-general manager of eReader.com, which mainly sells consumer e-books but has begun to market e-magazines, including business titles. "I talked with the other presenters six weeks before the show and it quickly became apparent that we were all grasping the elephant from vastly different vantage points. Some were highly technical, coming from the standards side. I come more from the business side. This market is in its very early stages."

Speakers and attendees at the show testified to DRM's growing acceptance-by publishers and consumers of content alike. The appeal, they say, is driven by both the carrot and the stick. Content providers such as Apple Computer and its iPod are training an entire generation of users to purchase à la carte content and accept the DRM restrictions around it. At the same time, ongoing legal activity-the Recording Industry Association of America announced new lawsuits against music-sharing sites and users in late August-is expected to continue to drive more users to legitimate, DRM-compliant destinations for their downloads.

In the business publishing market, technology has emerged to put DRM within the reach of almost all publishers. Whether or not it makes sense depends on what type of content a publisher is working with and the business model it hopes to establish around it, according to Bill Rosenblatt, president of Giant Steps Media Technologies and editor of JupiterMedia's DRMWatch.com Web site.

For high-priced items such as reports or newsletters, "if publishers aren't using DRM, they are just throwing money out the window," Rosenblatt said. "High-value, time-critical content is the classic combination of attributes for a DRM application."

Business publishes can get their digital rights management technology directly from a variety of sources. Publishing vendors such as Adobe Systems and Microsoft Corp. offer DRM applications and servers that can be used to manage digital rights. In addition, specialized DRM vendors such as SealedMedia, RightsMarket and others offer enterprise-scale DRM systems that can be appended to existing content management systems.

Not to be overlooked, increasingly popular "digital edition" technologies from vendors including Zinio, NewsStand and Olive Software typically have systems for managing digital rights baked right into their offerings.

With DRM becoming available from an increasing array of vendors, prices for basic DRM systems have come down to the "low four figures," according to analyst Rosenblatt, while enterprise-scale DRM systems can cost $100,000 or more.

Early adopters in the business publishing market are finding success in using DRM to support highly flexible business models. For instance, Ovid Technologies, a b-to-b publisher of medical and scientific journals, has deployed a DRM platform and quickly uncovered new ways to reach its customers.

"What we saw was an opportunity to make our full collection available to individuals on a pay-per-view basis," said Jay Chakrapani, VP-software product management at WK Health Medical Research Division. Ovid and WK Health are both information-publishing divisions of parent company Wolters Kluwer N.V.

Not surprisingly, Ovid is finding success using DRM with a technically sophisticated customer base. But as DRM matures and becomes easier to use, the market for DRM-delivered content will grow as well, said eReader's Violano.

"Like any market still in its early stages, the people who are adopting DRM right now are very much early adopters," he said. "But if you follow the natural evolution of the digital content business, it starts looking a lot like all of those analog businesses out there. We're all just waiting for the market and the technology to continue to mature."

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