Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Are Home Media Networks Getting Out of Control?

By Dennis D. McDonald


I recently wrote about another new Digital Rights Management scheme, TIRAMISU, a network-oriented system that could promote interoperability among devices. Based on files in MPEG-21 format, TIRAMISU relies on smartcards, superdistribution, and the concept of “home domains” to work.

I was particularly interested in the TIRAMISU concept of “home domains” which could (at least as I interpret it) be defined to include a variety of devices on which licensed media could be played based on a single authorization process or account. Would it not be nice for (a) devices to be interoperable and (b) for a single authorization and licensing system be in operation for all the devices?

I'm not holding my breath. In my own household, for example, there are the following:

  • In room 1: a 5-DVD/CD changer attached to a surround sound system as well as a TV and a digital cable box.
  • In room 2: a 5 CD changer, a single DVD player, and a digital cable box attached to a TV and a surround sound system.
  • In room 3: a single DVD player attached to a TV along with a digital cable box.
  • In room 4: a stereo amplifier, two speakers, plus a DSL modem and a wireless router networked via cable to an iMac, plus an extra cable used for occasional network access by an iBook (the iMac audio output is patched into the stereo amplifier)
  • Around the house: two portable Windows laptops with wireless access to the router
  • In storage: an Xbox and a Gamecube
  • Outside: Two cars, each with a CD player
  • My kids are away at college; each has a Windows laptop with wireless access that he or she can use to access the home network when they're home. Also, each kid owns an iPod.
  • One Windows XP Pro laptop in the house is equipped with CD/DVD burner.
  • We have a Netflix subscription so there is a regular flow of DVD's in and out of the house.

These are the devices in my “home domain.” Some are networked and have Internet access, most are not. Even for the networked devices, incompatibilities exist that make it impossible to share music or media files. For example, I haven't yet figured out how to access the CD's I've ripped via iTunes on my Windows laptop from other network-compatible devices running iTunes.

DVDs are stored in one room, music CD's in another, plus there's a collection of LP's that I'd like to digitize. There are probably around a thousand or so playable CD's, DVD's, and LP's floating around the house, maybe more. Plus there is regular use of streaming audio from the local cable system and regular use of the iTunes "radio" feature.

Viewed like this, this mix of devices, network access, and prerecorded media is, to put it mildly, a mess. Things are always getting lost, or they are not accessible on a system in another room. I have a stack of empty CD jewel cases and no idea where the original CD's are. (This is one of the reasons I started to rip my CD collection using iTunes, thinking this would make the collection more accessible.)

The idea of an interoperable set of devices with a single accounting interface for purchasing and licensing is – in theory – quite attractive. In theory, wouldn't device and media manufacturers be more likely to cooperate if they could be somehow assured that licensing would be manageable and could occur at a domain or household level?

It's an attractive concept. But I'm not sure what I would do given the mix of equipment I have. I suppose someone could introduce a networked smartcard reader and network interface to support the exchange of authorized files among my various “legacy” systems, but I'm not sure what that would accomplish. What about the stuff already in my collection? Would the copyright owners of the stuff I already “own” want to use a TIRAMISU like system to somehow control my use of “legacy” recordings? (I know, that may sound paranoid, but people who write about DRM sometimes have reason to be paranoid when, for example, topics like a “broadcast flag” are discussed!)

A more serious concern is: if some element of the system fails, what happens to the other components? Will they continue to operate?

I was reminded of this recently when both my kids away at college sent me emails asking for “more puppy movies.” I've been posting pictures of a friend's new puppies. I used my digital camera to take some stills and Quicktime movies of Bella and her puppies. I transferred them to my Windows laptop.


I had just updated iTunes that morning (I thought) which required a download of Quicktime, but when I tried to use Quicktime, it failed. So I couldn't see the Quicktime movies.

Interestingly, iTunes wouldn't work either; I couldn't play any of my ripped CDs or purchased files, not could I use iTunes to listen to any streaming radio programs, nor could I get at the podcasts I subscribe to. (Granted, I could have used Windows Media Player to get at the non-AAC files on my hard drive but I didn't think of that I was so eager to get at the puppy movies with Quicktime).

Repeated de-installations and re-installations of iTunes/Quicktime didn't help. I finally restored my Windows XP Pro system to a point the day before the problems started, but when I downloaded iTunes/Quicktime again, both failed. Looking at the logs I saw that, for some reason, the iTunes install was failing at a Quicktime related event, so I found the Quicktime-only install on the Apple web site, installed Quicktime by itself, then reinstalled iTunes and found I could now (a) listen to music while (b) I edited the puppy movie files.

At least temporarily I could not do the following:

  • I could not view movie files I had created myself because they were created in the Quicktime format and Quicktime was not accessible.

  • I could not play music I had ripped from my old CDs using iTunes.

  • I could not play music I had “purchased” through the iTunes service.

I never figured out what the problem was, but the situation reminded me of the complexities we have to manage as our home media environments becomes more complex. Assume, for example, that a single smartcard-based authorization system were available that would somehow cover approved  access to music and video files throughout my home domain. What if one element failed? Would the remaining playback devices operate if, for example, the server managing the authorization were somehow damaged or communication with it was disrupted? Would it be possible to transfer a file to a portable device also licensed as part of the home domain if the network was not operating or had to be reset/restarted following a power failure?

There are probably technical fixes for such problems and default settings that could be instituted to allow portions of the network to continue to operate. It would probably also be possible to define rules governing default access permissions within the operating portions of the domain.


But would the complexity of such a system be justified? What will be the transition costs (to me, to media vendors, to hardware vendors, etc.)? Can a complex network environment with multiple users and suppliers like this be managed without “finger pointing” when some part fails and it is not clear who or what part of the network is responsible.


I was reminded of the second point when my repeated attempts to download from Apple and re-install iTunes and Quicktime failed. Inevitably I received a Windows message asking my if I wanted to report the problem to Microsoft. “Ha ha ha,” I thought to myself; that is an ironic situation, given the incompatible DRM systems being pushed separately by Microsoft and Apple.

Note I haven't said anything about DRM-related copying, sharing, or superdistribution in the above discussion. I'm just concentrating on what can happen within the fairly narrow confines of a single household that likes to keep old equipment – and old media, such as LP's -- working as long as possible. (I also prefer NOT to purchase all my hardware, application software, and operating systems from a single vendor. I like to mix and match components, so an "All Microsoft" or "All Apple" solution is not acceptable.)

I remember years ago when, after we bought our first big TV and a shiny new surround sound and DVD system for the living room, there was just enough incompatibility built into the system components that members of my family would come to me and ask me to “turn on the TV so I can watch the evening news.”


As home media networks and alternate DRM schemes continue to evolve, I hope that it will not become necessary to establish a requirement that only homes with live-in system administrators will be qualified to maintain the systems that control access and permissions!


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