Will DRM die or thrive? Apple, Amazon, Tivo, Wal-Mart not sure…

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So all in the same week we have the following news:

1) Steve Jobs embraces a DRM-free world but says his hands are tied.

2) Amazon & Tivo join forces to bring you Amazon digital movie downloads via your Tivo.

3) Wal-Mart announces digital movie and TV show downloads from all six of the major studios.

Let’s take each of these and have a closer look:

Out of the three big announcements, only Jobs’ idea mentions the concept of DRM-free. And even then, he makes it sound like he’s powerless. It’s the “big four” music companies that have all the control. Sure, Apple has sold over 2 billion songs, but that apparently amounts to very little at the negotiating table, at least according to Steve Jobs.

While there have been rumors of Amazon opening a DRM-free music store, this latest announcement focuses around further expansion in the DRM world. The concept seems cool at first. I mean, as much as we bleeding edge tech evangelists don’t like to admit it, people still prefer to watch full length movies and shows on, you guessed it, their TV.

So Amazon is combining the idea of getting movie downloads with the idea of getting them in a place where you can appreciate them the most: your TV. But what about DRM? In the press release, the two companies kept quiet only mentioning briefly that, “As an added bonus, all purchased videos are automatically stored in each customer’s “Your Media Library” at Amazon.com for future access and download.”

Cool. But what are my restrictions? Before I go paying you $14.99, I need to know what my limitations are. According to this article in USA Today, once you pick the movie you want via Amazon, “…it will send purchases to two TiVos, two Windows PCs or one of each. The PC then can load the video on up to two portable devices using Windows copy protection (no iPods). Buyers can burn DVD copies for backup, but they won’t play in a DVD player. The Unbox [Amazon] service also keeps a record of purchases and will send backup copies if needed.”

So close! Let me make a DVD that will work in my DVD player or send me the DVD later as part of my purchase (I’d pay $14.99 for a movie download if I knew a playable DVD was on its way even if via the slowest shipping method). As it is, I’m still not thrilled to be paying the same price for something that seems to have less value.

As for Wal-Mart’s announcement, all downloads will be WMV with Windows Media DRM. You can burn them for back up, but they’ll only work on a single PC with an option to be moved to “three compatible portable devices.”

And they have discounting for when you buy the physical DVD and the download at the same time. So if you buy the physical DVD, you can get a code that allows you to download the “portable” version for $1.97, the PC version for $2.97, or both for $3.97. In my opinion, this is backwards. If I’m in the store with the DVD in my hand, why would I want to pay more to go home and download the same thing?

It should be the other way around. Let me download the movie first at a deeply discounted price (none of this “same price as the DVD” garbage), and then give me the option to receive the DVD in the mail later for a few bucks more (with the total expenditure not being any more than what I’m paying now for my DVDs).

Whatever the case, having my movie in multiple places is as much a hassle as it is a convenience with all the restrictions I can’t keep straight. I just don’t think we’re ready to be paying extra for it.

While I can see the argument for finger pointing straight at the music industry and movie studios, I was hoping this week’s DRM news would be slightly more exciting. As it stands, we’re gearing up for more DRM this year, not less.

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