The Digital Media Manifesto



L. Chiariglione


Overcoming the Digital Media dilemma




The creation and distribution of media content is a major global economic activity, as is the manufacturing related to it. The worldwide value of these amounts to several hundred billion USD p.a. Their impact on society, business and the personal lives of billions of people can hardly be overstated.

Although media come in different forms, they share the common feature of being immaterial. Although physical devices are required to create, move/store and consume (CMSC) media, it exists on a fundamentally separate level from its physical carriers. The older technologies for these carriers -- now referred to as "analogue" -- were employed throughout history to CMSC all media until about 20 years ago. Traditionally, the tight connection of media with the CMSC technology employed was a major feature of the media itself. Examples include vinyl recording, broadcasting in the VHF/UHF band, cable television distribution and VHS recording.

The physical nature of analogue CMSC technologies played a major role in shaping media businesses, imposing unique and various limitations on cost, delivery, consumption, etc. This union between the technology and its immaterial content also shaped public policy and legislation, for example laws concerning intellectual property and usage rights such as "fair use".

Starting 20 years ago and accelerating through the last decade, digital technologies have been employed for media "digitisation". The digital technologies offer radically different and easier ways to CMSC media. Their most noteworthy features are the ability to replicate media perfectly an unlimited number of times and the ability to detach media from its tight union with physical carriers. These features can exercise a substantial positive impact on the way media business is conducted. Unfortunately, they can also disable historically effective ways to exploit media economically.

In the early years the negative impact – business wise – of the first example of digitised media, the compact disc (CD), was reduced because duplication, always technically possible, was extremely hard and costly. The same has happened with DVD, another more recent and successful example of digitised media. Progress of technology, however, has gradually made copying of digitised media easy and inexpensive.

As a consequence various instances of legislation have been adopted in different countries to achieve such goals as setting a limit to the number of copies permitted from a digital original, imposing a levy on blank recording media and devices to compensate for the economic damage suffered by rights holders from private copies, and regulating some aspects of the use of such technologies as Digital Rights Management (DRM) that give rights holders the means to control access to media.

Unlike CD and DVD, which are excellent and successful examples of digitised media, but only provide “enhancements” of functionalities already available with analogue technologies, a collection of digital technologies such as personal computers, compression (e.g. MP3), network file sharing (e.g. P2P) and digital recording of TV programs (PVR) have shown that digital technologies have the potential to alter most of the premises on which the traditional media business is founded.

Far from being fancied by the opportunities, existing value chain players are frightened, among others, by the very size of the changes required by the adoption of these technologies and by doubts about the existence of sustainable business models. On the other hand, new players on the value chain have seized the opportunities but the conditions in which they usually operate are not backed by unambiguous legal settings.

End users are the ones who get a great new experience  – that will be called here the Digital Media (DM) experience – but in the context of potential abuse of other people’s Intellectual Property.

One step that has been taken by media companies is the legal one, on two fronts. The first is to start law suits against those whom they see as infringing on their rights and the second is to request lawmakers to mandate ad-hoc blocking technologies in consumption devices.

Many believe that both steps of the legal approach cannot provide a solution in the long run because the flexibility of digital technologies is such that there will always be people who will succeed going round whatever legal ruling is issued and because DM are a total paradigm shift and it is an illusion to counter its effects with ad-hoc technology stop gaps mandated by law.

The technology front has not been idle and has been actively advocating DRM as the solution to the problems surrounding DM. However, there are concerns from old and new value-chain players and end users that explain why the use of DRM is not advancing. Existing value-chain players are unconvinced that it is a solution because DRM does not solve the problem of unintended use of content already released, must be applied to all new content to be effective, may need radically new distribution mechanisms and requires the deployment of radically new consumption devices. New value chain players, on the other hand, fear to be disenfranchised because the selected DRM may contain some disabling features. Lastly, end users are opposed because they can no longer do things they assumed it was their right to do, fear a loss of their privacy, find DRM cumbersome to use and must often use different devices for similar services.

The absence of practical solutions leaves everybody in a damaging stalemate. Indeed DM can the driver of economic development in a multitude of industrial domains, e.g. networks, devices and software. Networks are the natural vehicle to move media, and the stalemate is one of the causes of the snail-like progress of broadband deployment, devices are needed to CMSC a variety of media, and the stalemate is one of the causes of the stagnating CE and IT markets and software is what makes the difference with DM, and the stalemate is one of the causes of the recent poor innovation record of the software industry.

DM is also the next quantum step in the ability of humans to communicate that can benefit society, business and individuals. Society, because DM have a unique capability to improve human ability to learn and access to DM stored in publicly managed repositories like libraries can boost the general level of education; business, because business is communication and DM can offer possibilities to communicate with other business partners or customers in a way that was never even conceived before; individuals, because they are potential creators to be discovered, in addition to consumers, and DM gives them the opportunity to do so.

DM also is the vehicle that can promote the creation of new forms of Intellectual Property by multiplying the opportunities to profitably extend one of the noblest and most valued human activities – creation of intellectual works.

Not acting on the stalemate now, on the other hand, has also direct negative consequences, such as letting the culture of “content is there for people to grab” to take further root. Another negative consequence is the continuing radicalisation of the legal approach. Still another is continuing supporting a tax that seems designed to penalise the innocent and reward the guilty.

There is simply too much at stake to resign to the inevitable and just hope that the mess will be sorted out one day, because the entanglement is such that it is not going to be resolved anytime soon.

So far efforts to break the DM stalemate have failed because of the belief that law alone or technology alone could do the job. In reality what is needed is synergistic actions on both fronts.

On the policy and legal side, new policies should be determined and legacy policies be revised, such as:

On the technical side, a DRM platform should be specified with the following main features:

The expected major benefits of these actions are:

The Digital Media Manifesto will analyse in more detail what are the hurdles that stand in the way to reaching the objective of setting in motion all facets of the Digital Media industry to the benefit of society, business players and users

The Digital Media Manifesto also proposes the establishment of the Digital Media Project, a not-for-profit organisation as the vehicle executing the two proposed actions. The technical action will be directly carried out by the Project. The policy and legislation action will be studied by the Project and recommendations issued to appropriate entities capable of executing them.