Good DRM Makes Bad Neighbors: This Is The Content Protection Tipping Point

For people who have been doing just one thing for a long, long time, it’s amazing how many content distributors get things so catastrophically wrong.

These last few weeks brought us quite a few unique situations, including the launch of Apple’s iBook Author software as well as a number of announcements from the studios to withhold streaming rights for Netflix viewers. Cory Doctorow points to a particularly delightful bit of DRM making the rounds in publishing right now, something that will be familiar iTunes users who found their real names embedded in music files a while back.

In a column at Publishers Weekly, he writes:

If there is anything that exemplifies the delusional nature in some publishing boardrooms today, however, it is the phrase “social DRM.” For those unfamiliar with the term, social DRM is another name for an unencrypted e-book that has the purchaser’s name (and often contact information) inserted in it, via some kind of digital watermarking. The idea is that e-book customers will be reluctant to share their e-books around if they know that their name and information will travel with the books, either because they don’t want to be shamed for being patient zero in a widespread epidemic of unauthorized copying, or out of fear of legal reprisals from publishers should a copy with their name on it show up on the Pirate Bay.

The delusion of publishers isn’t in their belief that social DRM will keep people from sharing. The real delusion lies in the use of “social DRM” in connection with the marketing and sale of e-books. Recently, I discovered some publishers actually advertising their use of social DRM.

Social DRM and release speed-bumps are, in the end, as laughable as SOPA/PIPA, CSS, Kindle encryption, and all of the DRMs and “road blocks” that came before them. The only real DRM – digital rights management, in its purest sense – is a reasonably-priced product sold everywhere in the the world quickly, easily, and, in the case of media like books and shows, the ability to be shared. Amazon and B&N clearly know this, and the gaming industry is learning. Music distributors have had this truth foisted upon them and they seem to be accepting it – with some hiccups – quite gamely. However, books and movies are still fighting the endless fight, attempting to make Amazon, Netflix, and other distributors bow to their will just as, once upon a time, book sellers and movie theaters went along with their harebrained schemes just to stay in business.

Piracy is a huge problem, but it’s a problem that’s solved through distribution, not DRM. As Paul Carr notes, “people who illegally copy books on a large scale, for personal profit, should be buried up to their necks in sand until ants eat their lungs from the inside.” End of story and replace books with anything created by a person who loves to make art.

The books/discs and mortar stores worked because in any town anywhere in the world, a kid could walk down to the local Buzzard’s Nest or B. Dalton or Barnes & Noble and plunk down $12.95 for a cassette of Duran Duran. These days, that same kid can get the cassette for nothing. The key, then, is to supplant that model through fair and easy pricing world-wide, ensuring less “effusive” but similar revenue streams. If I can buy a bestseller with one click on the Kindle, I’m far less likely to steal it.

To be clear, this is a 36-year-old’s view of the landscape. There are plenty of folks for whom the prospect of spending $12.95 or $10 or even $0.99 on an album is not feasible. But you don’t sell to those folks. You sell to your customers and hope the rest of the world becomes potential customers.

This is the tipping point for DRM. We are at a stage where our devices are so divorced from the actual plumbing of content distribution that to download an MP3 or MP4 will soon be as alien to coming generations as sliding a punch card through an IBM reader. You could argue that this is already true in that Kindle and iPhone owners can get music and books instantly, without understanding the format, the methodology, or networking. Whispernet, for example, is a perfect book distribution system. It works anywhere, it works with one click, and it is so ridiculously easy that you forget you’re spending money.

As much as free software folks bemoan the loss of the general purpose computer, in a few years our experience in consuming content will be mediated beyond recognition. Distributors and artists can do it the right way – at a fair price that will ensure folks will actually pay for content – or the wrong way by putzing around with release dates, ridiculous pricing differentials in different markets, and consistent dedication to the false church of DRM.