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Fourth, and perhaps most important, good DRM tech–nology should be flexible. The proposition Sony BMG made to customers with XCP was rather skimpy: buy this CD for $13.98 and you can make three copies, in Windows Media Audio format only. The copies can’t be copied – and they won’t play on other people’s computers. Reasonable DRM, by contrast, would give consumers the freedom to use the content they’ve purchased in noninfringing ways, such as ripping it to their computers and uploading it to their mobile players, or perhaps let them choose exactly how they would like to use the content and charge accordingly. Time-shifting (recording live audio feeds for consumption later), place-shifting (streaming music over the Internet from a home computer to a remote location), or even sampling and remixing might all come with different price tags. “The marketplace should reward or punish products based on whether they are providing the flexibility people want,” Sohn says.

Some DRM technologies offer increasing flexibility. Sohn points to FairPlay, the DRM system behind Apple’s iTunes, as one example other content distributors might do well to imitate: customers can listen to FairPlay-protected songs on a computer, make playlists, burn those playlists to CDs, and move the songs to portable devices. (Sohn is not a fan of FairPlay’s inability to operate with non-Apple products, however.) The success of the iTunes music store, Sohn says, suggests that this combination of features is “meeting consumer demand.” TiVo to Go is another example: owners of TiVo digital video recorders can transfer recorded shows to DVDs, desktop PCs, laptops, and mobile devices such as the video iPod and Sony’s PlayStation Portable.

But for every iTunes and TiVo, there are still numerous examples of restrictive DRM schemes that treat customers like criminals. Until there is consensus about what rights consumers deserve and which restrictions are necessary to protect the incomes of artists and their studios, buying digital content will probably continue to be a thorny business.

“There is absolutely a right for the holders of intellectual property to protect that property,” says Stephen -Toulouse, security program manager at the Microsoft Security Response Center, where researchers spent weeks last fall helping Windows users respond to the rootkit epidemic. “But as a consumer myself, I’d like to see software vendors and studios getting feedback from consumers and creating technologies that reflected it.”

In the end, then, the record labels’ best response to falling music revenues may be to exercise more imagination, not more control.

Wade Roush is senior editor at Technology Review.

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