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Analysis: Microsoft to fight for your digital rights

Feb 27, 20034 mins
Enterprise ApplicationsIntellectual PropertyMicrosoft

Microsoft’s move last week to help users secure corporate documents with digital rights management will bring needed awareness to the technology but will hardly signal wide-spread adoption, according to observers.

Acceptance of digital rights management (DRM) still must endure a number of growing pains and overcome issues such as: deployment and ease of use barriers; establishing trust networks; cost and infrastructure requirements; and the fact that only certain users can truly benefit from the technology, such as those publishing e-books.

But with companies committing more and more intellectual assets to digital media and with federal regulations such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) governing document confidentiality, corporations are seeking answers to their concerns.

The ability to restrict who can see data and then forward, copy or print it out based on a set of managed rights embedded in a file has become an intriguing idea. But it has to be easy to use or it will fall into the same quagmire that stifled the rise of secure e-mail, experts say.

The topic of rights management caught fire in the entertainment industry a few years back on the heels of Napster, but the enterprise is now becoming the hot area of focus.

Microsoft’s announcement last week that its forthcoming Windows Server 2003 and Office 2003 would support DRM technology called Windows Rights Management Services brought that home.

But the question is: “Will companies bite?” And if so, how hard?

“A lot of people have been thinking of protecting content, but to date it has not translated into sales,” says Ray Wagner, research director for information strategies at market research firm Gartner. In fact, the market is so small that Gartner does not even try to size it.

“Microsoft should raise visibility of the market,” Wagner says. The question is: “Is there a general marketplace?”

The answer has been ‘no’, but DRM is in use today in tens of thousands of e-books, including some using early technology from Microsoft called Digital Asset Server. And companies such as publisher Jane’s Information Group and programmable logic device manufacturer Xilinx are using DRM technology to protect data and price catalogs they publish electronically.

One thing that has kept DRM down is deployment demands that foreshadow high costs.

“DRM is a huge infrastructure play to roll out,” says Joshua Duhl, an analyst with market research firm IDC.  “You have servers, clients and the need to create an entire trusted system.”

 Microsoft won’t necessarily make that easier, and brings along a lot of other adoption issues, says Duhl.

“Microsoft’s solution is only for Microsoft, not for Macintosh, Linux or Unix,” he says. And Duhl says Microsoft’s support of the Extensible Rights Markup Language (XRML) would necessarily bring interoperability. “There is no Unix client for XRML.”

But Microsoft could make DRM cheaper. For the first time a DRM system will be waiting to be turned on by enterprises that upgrade both Windows servers and Office applications.

“This looks like something we could take advantage of especially for distributing documents to off-campus clinics in light of HIPPA regulations,” says Jeff Allred, manager of network services for the Duke University Cancer Center in Durham, N.C. “We’ve been hoping Microsoft would do something.”

Microsoft will be competing against a number of existing players including Authentica, Adobe, AirZip, SealedMedia, Finjan Software (which acquired AlcheMedia), Liquid Machines and IBM, which is recasting its Electronic Media Management System for the WebSphere platform.

Others, such as Reciprocal, are moving to partner with companies such as Adobe and Microsoft.

“We’ll build trusted clients and offer a private label service that hosts the rights management server built into Windows Server 2003,” says Ray Leach, CEO of Reciprocal, a start-up in the late 1990s and was briefly owned by Microsoft before being sold to digital media vendor OverDrive.

Leach says OverDrive had technology similar to Microsoft’s but saw the software giant coming and decided to step aside.

“We think anyone trying to do DRM outside of Adobe and Microsoft is going to have trouble.”