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19 June 2007 Blog Home : June 2007 : Permalink

DRM - the beast that won't die

I think it is fairly clear to the average reader of this blog that I think DRM is one of the more stupid ideas I have come across. I last discussed DRM with reference to the HD-DVD key issue but people still pop up and try and defend it. The latest DRM defender is a gentleman called Robert Weber. Mr Weber is I'm glad to say quite open about the fact that he works for a company that offers corporations DRM consultancy so it isn't exactly a surprise to see him publically defending DRM, but I wonder whether his clients ever call him on some of the things he writes. I'm going to fisk his post in a bit but first I'd like to point out that I got there from the Teleread blog and that Teleread has a refutation from 3 years ago that IMO Mr Weber should read and think about (and then after that he can go and read Eric Flint's salvoes at Jim Baen's Universe). 

Ok enough with the intro, now on with the fisking of Mr Weber's annoyance with anti-DRM folks:

More mis- and dis-information, this time from the Free the BBC campaign and a letter to the BBC apparently instigated by Binary Freedom Boston.

I always like to start agreeing with my fiskee. In this case I'll agree that the letter contains "mis- and dis-information". Unfortunately I'm not sure that the parts Mr Weber chooses to answer are the ones with "mis- and dis-information".

The letter make three arguments:
1. DRM doesn't work. Like many others, they conclude that because if it's not perfect, it doesn't work. If it didn't work, who would care?

Classic case of excessive simplification. It takes a few minutes googling, visiting YouTube, the Pirate Bay and so on to locate masses of music, video, ebooks etc. that are readily available for download for free. Some of this is poor quality, some isn't, and much of it is only legally available with DRM. There are good reasons (dangers of malware, quality, a desire to reward the creators) to purchase legal DRMed copies, but availability isn't one of them. Indeed WRT the BBC, it is extremely easy to locate torrents of popular episodes of say "Top Gear" or "Dr Who", let alone official non-DRM copies of radio programs so it isn't clear to me what problem the DRM is supposed to solve. The problem is that it only takes one person to crack the DRM for it to be available for millions and so far, despite all the efforts both legal and technical, no DRM scheme has remained uncracked. So here's the deal. DRM does not stop freeloaders who want to consume content without paying for it from getting that content. It may make it a bit harder but it doesn't stop it and one way or another I see no sign that it ever will. Freeloaders may have to spend a few of hours figuring out how to get the first uncracked thing but once they've got the first the next one is not going to take as long to obtain.

2. DRM is a poor business decision. Ain't necessarily so. It might be an excellent business decision for content other than music, and even in some cases, for music (although I think that ship is mostly sunk).

DRM is a poor business decision because it treats everyone as a potential crook and the more intrusive it is the more we get annoyed. DRM tends to lock us into particular devices (e.g. iPods) and to limit the freedom we have to move stuff from one device to another when we own both. I don't listen to much music or watch too many movies so I'm going to talk about eBooks. Microsoft's Reader and Lit format requires readers to register their computer with Microsoft and ties all the books to a particular email address. I found that when I switched laptops the installation and reregistration of MS reader nearly caused me to throw my new computer across the room because it took about 57 steps that needed to be done precisely in order and which were not clear except when you got about 10 steps further on and got stuck. I am far from alone, author John Ringo wrote about his similar travails with Vista and MSN music in a "novella" that I can totally relate to. Another good example is a 2003 post by the Shifted Librarian:

Forget for a moment the problems some of the DRM caused even just during the demo. Forget the fact that PDFs are a proprietary format, and let's just say the libraries don't care about a logo and link. The next biggest problem? Defining the word "own." It's like having Clinton define the word "sex."

After much debate, we came to the conclusion that if a library purchases titles from ED, it does indeed own them. However, if it stops subscribing to the service, if ED folds the way Gemstar did, or if PDFs are replaced by another format, the library will "own" a file that is completely and utterly useless. You can only download the file from the ED site into an offline reader, and the content automatically expires after a pre-determined date. Even if you set that date to be 1,000 years from now, the title is stuck in that one copy of the offline reader. You can't circulate it, you can't print a paper copy of it, and you can't move it anywhere else. If the hard drive crashes, then you own a file you can't even look at anymore.

I have a real problem with that, as do consumers, libraries, and anyone other than publishers involved with ebooks. This is exactly the kind of mentality that is regressing the ebook movement. The next time someone asks why ebooks aren't taking off, ask them to look up the word "own" in the dictionary.

People like the idea of being able read/watch/listen to something in the car when they are in the car and in the house when they are in the house. They also like the idea of being able to decide that insetad of buying a new iPod they'll get a Zune or a Sony something and expecting that their musc etc. will play on the new product just as it does on the old one. They particularly like this idea because they've been bent over and rogered with 8-tracks, betamax, DAT, minidiscs, laserdiscs and dozens of other formats that turned out to be lemons and which, hence, lead to the inability to play content once the original player dies of old age. DRM requires consumers to trust the electronics industry and the media content industries to continue supporting gadgets and formats, something that experience has taught us they are unlikely to do.

3. The industry has ditched it. Well, only in music, and mainly, in my view, to get Apple out-from-under potential anti-trust issues, especially in Europe. Apple sold a lot of music with FairPlay DRM, which did what it was supposed to do.

Not true. I agree that the movie studios have drunk the DRM koolaid but ebook vendors are shifting away from DRM gradually. Successful eBook publishers (e.g. Baen) have either ditched it or never embraced it and authors from other publishers have begun to clamour publicly for their publisher to move to a DRM free model. 

Much of the anti-DRM sentiment comes from those who believe that "information wants to be free" (often wrongly attributed to Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow, but actually from Stuart Brand). To state the obvious, information doesn't want anything. Ever. People don't want to pay. Period.

Again enough with the excessive simplification. Some people don't want to pay. Other people are unwilling to pay rip off prices for DRM crippled versions of stuff that they can buy in a physical form for the same or less. Consumers are not stupid. They realize that the distribution cost of something downloaded over the internet is near as dammit free, whereas the distribution cost of a physical book/CD/DVD is about half the price of the object (printing, packaging and the cut that the shop takes). Hence if you sell something to download you should be only paying at most half what it costs to get in physical form. iTunes was successfull because people were willing to pay $0.99 for a song instead of $15 for an album but in part that was because about 75% of the 10-15 tracks on the album were crud so the 2-4 listenable tracks cost $2-$4 each. I linked up above to Charlie Stross's post on ebooks, I'm going to quote from it:

Interestingly, Baen's webscription titles are under-represented on the ebook warez newsgroups. I don't think this is an accident. Books that come up most often are either scanned and OCRd paper copies, or cracks of DRM-locked ebooks. If you look at the posters' activities in terms of proving status within a gift economy this makes sense; OCRing a book or cracking DRM takes time and effort, and is a demonstration of putting effort into something — it's a high value activity. Whereas posting something you grabbed off Baen's library of for-free books, or paid $5 for is just stupid — it's like turning up to a a wine and cheese evening your friends are running on a "bring a bottle" basis with a bottle of Buckfast or Mad Dog 20/20. It's cheesy, tasteless, and looks cheap, and that's how the ebook pirate elite will view you.

People are demonstrably willing to pay for stuff if they perceive a value in doing so. Some people have a lower price point than others (which is why book publishers have hardback and paperback editions etc.) which is why no matter how cheap you sell things for some scumbags will try to get it for free, but there is masses of evidence (from Baen and elsewhere) that shows that if you price something appropriately so it isn't seen as a rip off then people will buy it and not bother trying to put it up on P2P or WareZ sites.

The economic model of Free doesn't provide incentives to produce digital goods in the first place. There is one well-known exception. And that's where the business model is experienced based. The Grateful Dead made its money from concerts and merchandise. Recordings were a giveaway to build and maintain their fan base. Anyone could patch into the sound board and record the concert. Good model, but not one generalizable to music generally or to video, movies, TV, and games.

Particularly when it comes to creative work where (unlike with cars) every product is different, consumers really want some sort of "try before you buy". Hence libraries, browsing in bookstores, borrowing CDs from friends and so on. DRM removes our ability to try before we buy so it should be little surprise that we don't buy. Or don't buy as much, and only from "trusted" brands (i.e. best sellers). I agree that the economic model of everything free doesn't provide incentives to produce more but neither does the economic model of ripping off your customer and DRM seems to lead people to do the latter. The economic model of "the first hit is free then when you're hooked we get as much as we can from you" is tired and tested and works as well in ebooks (Baen) as it does with crack sellers.

Ask a musician who is not at the top of the charts but who has a couple of CDs out, gets some airplay, got someone to distribute their tunes on the Web, and sells merchandise from website, whether they'd like to get paid every time a track is sold AND passed along to the buyer's 10 best friends. Yes they are doing music for art's sake, but like all of us, they have to keep a roof over their heads, eat, and have a life.

It all depends on how you slant the question. If you ask said musician whether he'd rather have 10 people clamouring for his next album or 100 you'll get a different answer. Midlist writers and equivalent musicians etc. suffer more because no one has ever heard of their stuff than because it's been given away for free. If you have 10 fans then your maximum possibly sale is 10. If you have 100 then your maximum is 100 not 10, furthermore with 100 the chances are greater that some of them will recommend your product to their friends and hence see a greater growth in the fan base (and hence customer base). This is the classic J curve or S curve growth beloved of venture capitalists and silicon valley start ups. If you artificially limit yourself to the low end of the curve then you never get a chance to see the exponential growth at the top. DRM helps limit you.

Is the division of revenue between artists and labels fair? Debatable. Complex industry. Maybe not. But just because media giants are playing by the rules of capitalism doesn't mean that those who don't want to pay should get a free pass by repeatedly insisting that Free is the only way to go. Repeating a statement endlessly doesn't make it true or right.

I'm glad to see we can agree again. "Repeating a statement endlessly doesn't make it true or right" and many of the statemnents made defending DRM, in my opinion, fall into that category. The big DRM lie, it seems to me, is the theory that in the old days before "digital" no one consumed content that did not generate income for the publisher/artist and that therefore the online downloading of "pirated" copies is somehow new. This is flat out rubbish, from shoplifters and borrowers of stuff from friends, to libraries and second hand stores there were endless ways that people used to consume content without the publisher getting any money. For books there is some evidence that roughly 1 in 4 readers pay the publisher, the rest read the book in some other way. I suspect the distribution is similar for music and other content. In other words in the pre-DRM days publishers managed to get a royalty from just 25% of the audience. To do this, typically, publishers have had to incur large costs with respect to the production, warehousing and distribution of physical product much of which ends up not being sold (google "sell through rate") or at least not sold at anything other than remaindered firesale price.

It is understandable that publishers might wish to raise the proportion of the audience that pays and/or raise the amount they get from each paying consumer but a fair argument for/against DRM has to start from the fact that 75% of users will not have paid rather than the fantasy that less than 5% or so were freeloaders under the previous conditions.