Yesterday's news that Google were terminating their Google Video service with extreme prejudice is very interesting. The fascinating part about this is that they have decided not only to stop selling DRM locked content but they are also shutting down the key management service* that enables current owners of Google DRM "protected" material to unlock the content. As of August 15th 2007 all Google DRM products will simply cease to work. Not very nice if you had spent any significant amount of cash on their so-called "Download To Own" content. In return they are giving affected users a $5 refund voucher on Google Checkout valid for 60 days. How cheap and nasty is that?
When Google initially introduced DRM protected content on Google video many people were skeptical about their motives. It was certainly a move that seemed at odds with the company's "Don't be Evil" motto. In the intervening period they never gave an impression that they really cared much for their own premium service and the purchase of YouTube was a clear sign of the direction they really wanted to go in terms of online video.
This latest move also comes at an odd time. There's a lot of focus on the negative side of DRM and former DRM devotees are breaking ranks (somewhat). Universal have just announced a 6 month trial period where they will sell DRM free premium content and Apple are apparently doing pretty well with their non-DRM protected iTunes tracks. Interestingly all of these efforts are for audio only but Google have now drawn significant attention to online video DRM.
So what is Google up to? Why are they not fully refunding their customers? They can't have sold all that much content so a full refund wouldn't cost much and would have headed off all of the criticism that has exploded over this. They must have been aware that this would generate howls of protest from the peanut gallery. These are vry smart people and while they might sometimes launch products that are a bit over ambitious or simply pointless they are not going to actively do something that pisses people off without having a very good reason for doing it.
Call me nuts but I suspect that there is method to their madness. I think that they want to be sued over this and that what they are looking for is a way to get a legal precedent set whereby distributors of DRM protected content _must_ provide consumers with guaranteed access for life to content they purchase in good faith. Google's loss in this case would be trivial in financial terms but the serious impact of this would be felt by the large scale players in the online music and video distribution businesses - specifically Apple (for AACS DRM), Microsoft (WM* DRM) and Real (Helix). If I'm right then in the long term this could become a hugely important milestone in the story of the use of DRM in online content distribution.
* Ed Felten's Freedom To Tinker has a very good overview of how Google Video's DRM system worked that explains why once the service is shut down how all access to previously purchased content can be disabled more or less instantly.