Saturday, February 28, 2009

Contrarian view on DRM

At the recent Tools of Change conference, the idea that publishers should protect their electronic products through the use of DRM (digital rights management encryption) was universally poo-poo'd. Speaker after speaker got up and put down the practice. Blogger Cory Doctorow had the most popular quote of the conference, "If content is a river, DRM is a urinary tract infection, delivering the flow in a painful drip".

This morning on Twitter, one of my 'virtual mentors', Mike Hyatt, highlighted a blog post that asks why book publishers are following the same path with Amazon and DRM that music publishers did with Apple (iTunes) and DRM. It uses that logic to put down the use of DRM.

I hadn't really thought about that question that way, but it made me think about what Apple did to the music business - from a consumer perspective (NOT the music publisher perspective). iTunes brought order to a very chaotic music market. Before iTunes we were in the age of Napster, and other file sharing services. In that age, people were freely sharing music files and feeling no compunction about the ethics involved in it.

When I was in college it was a pretty common practice to bootleg music by recording off the original LP. We all had our bootleg cassettes, and while we did it, we all knew it was technically illegal. File sharing in a way was simply using technology to bring bootlegging to a whole new level - one which had a pretty dramatic effect on the producers of the music. A key difference was that no one really felt it was wrong.

During the 'Napster age', I personally chose not to participate, because I thought it was wrong. I (as a consumer) felt that I could afford to pay for the music, hence I should. When iTunes came along, I loved it. I could feel good about downloading music because I paid for it. To me, iTunes brought order to the chaos of the time. I didn't care about the music business, I was simply caring about my own participation in being fair to the copyright holder.

Now, it can also be argued that the 'Napster age' of DRM-less music did eventually benefit the copyright holders and the musicians in a far more lucrative way than through royalties. It can be argued that increased popularity of concerts (even at vastly raised ticket prices) was brought about partly because there was a whole new market of listeners who found the music because it was free.

The point I really want to make here is, publishers should understand that there is a segment of their market that like to know that they are doing the right thing by paying a fair price, getting content that is protected through a trusted vendor in a reliable way.

So, does the argument of DRM need to be answered in a Yes or No way? I think there is room for both. Maybe that should be the lesson from the music industry. Both ways have some validity, finding the balance is the challenge.


Kassia said...

Hey Fran -- the crazy thing is that readers don't hate the idea of DRM as much as they hate the way it's being implemented. I think we're seeing a lot of frustration bubbling to the top, and now is the time for the publishing biz to think about the end user and how to make them happy. I am convinced that there are ways to protect rights (though, frankly, DRM hasn't ever stopped piracy) while focusing on the best possible consumer experience.

(We have this old tape turned CD of an early Dream Syndicate concert where Steve Wynn says, with dripping sarcasm, that home taping is killing the music industry. Hearing those words made me laugh because it's always some new thing killing something, isn't it?)

Fran Toolan said...

Hi Kassia,

I just wonder how many consumers (outside of the technologists) even care about DRM one way or the other. I thought Jon Stewart nailed that point when Jeff Bezos started to talk about it, and Stewart stopped him.

I agree with your last comment wholeheartedly, something is always killing something else...