What's DRM Good For?

Wednesday's post garnered some very awesome comments, making good points for both sides: paper and e-books. A couple of them got me thinking about DRM, and what makes it bad or good. That's what we're talking about today.

First, a definition. DRM stands for Digital Rights Management. Once upon a time, media was produced as physical objects. You had to have a printing press or a recording studio or a pinball parts factory to copy your favorite book/song/game for your friends. Today, software, music, movies, games, and books exist as strings of 1's and 0's, on machines designed to copy those strings at ridiculous speeds, all connected to each other via networks that send 1's and 0's at the speed of light.

Point is, it's easy to copy stuff, and DRM is the software that makes it harder.

The best argument against DRM is that it can always be cracked. There is no such thing as the perfect security system, so why bother having that system at all? Especially when DRM hurts consumers more than the pirates.

The problem with that argument is that piracy is more about culture--about thought--than it is about the law or the means to enforce it. If digital media had nothing to protect it, it would be hard for even the most law-abiding citizen to justify not copying their library for a friend.

But the second half of the argument is spot on: DRM often makes things more inconvenient for the paying consumer than it does for the illegal pirate. So this is what I think good DRM should look like:

  1. When your stuff is lost (computer crashed, dropped the Kindle in the bathtub, someone stole your iPod, etc), you should be able to get it back without a hassle.
  2. You should be allowed to use your stuff on whatever device you prefer, even if it's not the same device as the company you bought the media from. So you should be able to read B&N e-books on a Kindle, or listen to iTunes music on that cheap MP3 player you bought years ago. If I paid for it, I don't want to lose money just because they pulled a Borders on me.
  3. You should be allowed to use your stuff on a reasonable number of devices. If you own a laptop, iPad, iPod, and desktop computer, you shouldn't have to remember which one is licensed to watch those episodes of House you bought.
  4. It should be easy to register/unregister devices so you can use your stuff wherever you happen to be. In other words, you shouldn't have to uninstall MS Word on your old computer before you can activate it on your new one.

    The underlying assumption here is that the people who paid for the digital media want to follow the rules. When a customer asks if he can download his music again, or explains that he deleted his old copy of MS Word before deactivating it, he's not trying to pull one over on the company. That'd be like the lamest way to pirate stuff ever!

    The real pirates already do everything I listed above, for the low price of hanging around seedy webpages and having to scan for viruses every other day. They're not going to e-mail tech support asking for someone else's legitimate library--they already have what they want from Pirate Bay.

    Can it be done? Many DRM schemes already do some or all of the things I've listed. Many don't. Those that don't are hurting paying customers and doing absolutely nothing to pirates (except maybe to convert a few more to piracy). I think we need DRM, but I don't think it has to be so draconic.

    What do you think? I'd love to hear your opinion in the comments.


    Susan Kaye Quinn said...

    Amen to all of that. I think we're in a transition time, where the idea of "ownership" is moving toward a person-centric concept rather than an object-centric concept. Which makes it even more important to emphasize that piracy is a social/moral construct, not just a physical act.

    There's lots of kinks to getting this right, but we'll get there, as long as we don't cede the argument to the pirates.

    Also: that picture freaks me out.

    Matthew MacNish said...

    I totally agree that most pirates would do it less if it were harder to accomplish and if media was more reasonably accessible and fairly priced.

    jjdebenedictis said...

    I think the mistakes RIAA made--mind-screaming witch-hunts that they were--have helped other industries think sanely about DRM and copyright protection. It's always good to remember the saying, "Your fans are not the enemy."

    Meg said...

    I agree with what you think good DRM should look like.

    I also think that educating people could go a long way towards stemming piracy. Most people don't understand how they're hurting others. They think they people they're taking from are rich stars.

    For example, every time you buy a movie, pretty much everyone who speaks in the movie, not just the headliners, gets a bit of money. So when it's pirated money is being taking from some poor actor who's trying to make a living out of bit parts.

    Anonymous said...

    I agree that the present DMR is too restrictive on buyers. I actually learnt how to strip it just so I could share my ebooks with one other person on her ereader. We share paper books, so why not ebooks. I have no intention of emailing the books to anyone else or of copying them. That is simply wrong, but sharing them with your family is something we should be able to do.

    I notice that kindle now allow sharing with one other person for a period of 10 days, that would work for me, but I have a sony, not a kindle.

    I agree with your suggestions. As an author I want some form of DMR, but not as restrictive as it is now.

    I even learnt how to change a kindle file to an epub, so I could buy books from Amazon and read them on my sony. Point being that there are ways you can do it anyway, so it doesn't stop the pirates. I have a few posts on these matters on my blog. http://tahlianewland.com/category/ebooks/

    Adam Heine said...

    @Susan: It's definitely a weird transition time. It's hard to understand that although I own a CD of MS Office, they only want me to install it on 2-3 computers.

    @Matthew: I don't know percentages, but certainly some pirates do it just because paying is unreasonably difficult.

    @JJ: Yes! If you hurt the people who love you, soon there'll be no one left.

    @Meg: I know movies have tried that education (I'm imagining Schwarzenegger and Jackie Chan in front of a bad blue screen). I once wrote a post of my thoughts on changing the culture. It's not easy.

    @Tahlia: Exactly. Harsh DRM doesn't seem to fix anything; it just sends regular folks looking for alternative means to do what they want.