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Yet for all of its potential, digital content controls are still in their infancyand they're controversial. Privacy and civil liberties activists, for example, say digital content controls might end up chilling the free exchange of ideas over the Web while at the same time subjecting customers to technologies that would track their movements online, beyond those tied directly to how they use a piece of content. "As a nation, we haven't yet come to any sort of reconciliation about what an effective model is," says Carnegie Mellon's Hunker.
But the chief reason digital content controls aren't more widespread yet is the lack of technology standards governing their use and design. "In some systems, it's hard to exchange content [encoded with controls] from one system to another," says Charles Tobermann, vice president of digital media technologies for Vivendi Universal Net, the Internet arm of Paris-based Vivendi Universal.
One central standard, though, may not be far off. For more than a year, a variety of organizations with names like IPR Systems and OASISnot the rock band, but a consortium of companies seeking standardshave been floating proposals. In recent months, the standards battle has boiled down to a fight between the giantsMicrosoft on one side and IBM and streaming media technology developer RealNetworks Inc. and its partners on the other. IBM's digital control technologies, for examplewhat the rock band Oasis and Sony used to create buzz for the group's new CDis designed on open source software code, making it compatible with diverse systems at a variety of companies. Meanwhile, ContentGuard, a company spun out of Xerox Corp. in 2000 and backed by Microsoft, is focused primarily on promoting its chosen standard, Extensible Rights Markup Language, or XrML, a set of rules that codifies the ways proprietary software can exchange information using digital content controls. For the first time in May, the Rights Language Technical Committee of the OASIS group met with major content owners to push for consensus.
While it's all getting sorted out, KPMG's Preston suggests that companies might want to decide early on whether they can profit from some form of digital controls. At some companies, Preston says, CIOs have formed cross-department teams to determine which company data is proprietary and which might generate revenue, such as copyrights, patents and trademarks as well as e-versions of contracts, leases, research and even back-of-the-napkin drawings for new designs. Chances are, it's all stored in any number of databases somewhere. "Many companies are holding digital assets they don't even realize are assets," says Emily Freeman, a vice president at AIG eBusiness Risk Solutions, a New York-based insurance company.
Yet to many in the digital content control movement, the most promising short-term revenue-producing use of the technologies today is in marketing. IBM's Burnett says IBM is seeing more demand for the technology as a way to create online buzz for products in advance of sales.
Down the road? Content metering, say analysts, that uses digital content controls to charge people for how long they use content, creating new business models for online video rental shops, for example, or online book rentals. Also on the horizon are wireless applications. In July, IBM announced it would collaborate with Nokia to put content controls onto a variety of wireless devices for both business and consumer applications. Says Carnegie Mellon's Hunker: "I think the biggest thing Napster did was teach us the limits of our imaginations. A lot of companies felt defeated, and shied away from the Web. That's starting to change now." Adds Simmons' Schad: "When it comes to online piracy now, the gloves are coming off." His new motto? "Don't get madget even."
Susan J. Marks is a Denver-based freelance writer. Additional reporting was done by Debra D'Agostino, CIO Insight's copy chief.