Friday, April 17, 2009

DRM is for Children

When we had little children, we had beds with railings so they wouldn't fall out, playpens to keep them from crawling away, and the electric outlets were plugged with plastic stoppers so they wouldn't try to stick a fork into the slots (that didn't always work). The whole idea was that when they were too young to know better, careful parents would use technological barriers to keep the little ones from hurting themselves.

It's an imperfect analogy for DRM-encumbered songs, movies and ebooks, because the immature ones won't inadvertently hurt themselves, they will carelessly hurt others by damaging the ethical marketplace.

In an adult world, people would buy, or otherwise ethically acquire, the digital media they want and then have no DRM to manage what they do with it because they would be wise enough to understand the economics of media production. In their own self interest, they wouldn't participate in the unethical secondary duplication arena. Neither would they, while walking through a farmer's market, swipe an apple off the table and eat it without paying. Five finger discount is something kids do, until they learn better.

When I was young, a buddy would occasionally come out of a store with something he'd swiped, and didn't quite understand why I was so set against it. (I've always been something of a stick in the mud.) It is an interesting twist of fate that he is now a shop owner, and sells a number of easily pocketable items in his store. I'd bet his opinion of shop lifting has changed considerably over the years.

The economics of nearly-free duplication has to be learned, and it's not obvious to everyone. Back when I first attempted to write and sell software, it was with the understanding that everybody shared. These computer things were new and everyone was eager to help each other out. The idea that software could be a product was missing at first. But that changed. What had been a hobby became an industry, and to enable the vast resources it took to make computing ubiquitous, rules had to change. Copyright, which had proven its worth over hundreds of years by setting the guidelines of how money is to be made from intellectual property, became the new way sharing was defined. There was authorized sharing, and unauthorized, or piracy.

People change, but not overnight. Gradually, there is a more widespread understanding that just because you can give it away, the rules say you should stick to the license. The digital market is maturing. In spite of the widespread warez culture, most people understand that there is a legal issue, and don't think twice about going to a store to buy the software that they need. They may gripe about the price, but they gripe about gas prices too.

Digital music has been fascinating to watch. The legal markets for it never caught on until iTunes' painless DRM and instant gratification made the authorized sale easy. People like me jumped on the bandwagon – mainstream stick in the mud people like me who were overjoyed to have a quick and legal way to pick up songs. It reached the point where the DRM was just too much trouble and the numbers said they didn't need it anymore.

That's the future I see. When people are quick to grab an unauthorized copy, there will be producers pushing for ever more restrictive DRM. When the market is mature and it's quick and easy to buy what you want, the DRM fades away.

It's all a numbers game. Every time someone strips DRM from a product and shares it around, that's more data telling the producers that stronger DRM is needed. As soon as the marketplace matures enough so that cultural rules alone are strong enough, then the technological padlocks will go away. All it takes is for the customers to mature a little. It's slow, but it's happening.

So what can I, a publisher who sells e-books, do to make this maturity happen faster? Probably not much, but I'll try. As a small publisher, my choices are limited to what the Kindle Store and Mobipocket offer. My Kindle books are probably DRM-free already, if what I read is true. My mobi books are not. The form won't allow the non-DRM book to be uploaded to the various markets. But here's my private offer. Starting now, anyone who bought one of my ebooks, regardless of format and DRM, can email me a proof of purchase and I'll give you a DRM-free copy of the same title, just a grateful acknowledgment for people who have demonstrated their maturity. Currently I have mobi, pdf and epub formats.

Hey, it's not much, but when I can do more, I will.


Chris Meadows said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris Meadows said...

A great post, and a terrific offer! There's just one thing I'd quibble with: the idea that having DRM cracked shows that "stronger DRM is needed."

They can make DRM as strong as they like, but they'll never be able to make it uncrackable as long as the recipient of the message and the unauthorized "attacker" are the same entity. If you provide the user with the key to the automatic-unlocking-gadget along with the locked-up message, smart hackers will always be able to figure out how to turn the lock on their own.

And in fact, it doesn't seem to work the way you suggest in the real world, or at least in the e-book world. Every major e-book encryption format is compromised, and in fact has been compromised for months or years; you can find the cracks for them all in just five minutes with Google. And the vendors of those formats know damn well they've been compromised—but there's no rush to retrofit them with any stronger encryption. You don't hear about Mobipocket or Fictionwise or Adobe or Microsoft coming up with new hoops for their customers to jump through.

Wonder why that is?

Chris said...

A very generous offer and wise in my opinion. Note how iTunes now allows you to buy DRM free music. I would never knowingly buy any media with DRM. It always seems to ruin it. It is on one computer and you want in on the other computer, etc.

Henry Melton said...

Chris M, you're probably right that there is no arms race in DRM currently. It used to be the case, most recently in the iTunes/Rhapsody conflict, if my failing memory is of any use any more. I think DRM has reached the level of 'keeping honest people honest', but I don't doubt there are voices in the boardroom who would like to find the ultimate uncrackable DRM.