Problems With DRM

 Posted by at 1:18 PM  Tagged with: , , , ,
Aug 232010

Does DRM Prevent Piracy Or Cripple Legitimate Users?

DRM, which stands for Digital Rights Management, is a form of copy protection sometimes embedded into electronic media (like e-books, MP3 music files, etc.). Its purpose is generally noble: prevent piracy (unauthorized copying and distribution of copyrighted material) so that the content creators (authors, musicians, publishers) can earn the money they deserve for their work.

NOTE: If your stance is that copyright is evil and “all information wants to be free” and that people shouldn’t get paid for creating music or writing a book or researching a newspaper article (but that you should get paid for fixing people’s computers or writing car dealership advertisements or whatever you do for a living), then I don’t think we’ll see eye to eye and you may as well move on to another blog.

But here’s the problem with DRM: it generally doesn’t prevent piracy, since almost all forms of DRM have been hacked, and it just ends up annoying legitimate, paying customers. So the pirates strip out the DRM and continue sharing files illegally, and the actual customer (who we as content creators should be bending over backwards for) is annoyed, limited in how they can use the music or e-book they purchased, and sometimes has to buy it again just because they got a new computer or e-book reader. Lame.

Let me give you a simple example to explain why DRM is broken: I have a few MP3 songs on my computer. Most of them came from old CDs that I had bought. I bought a few from Apple through iTunes several years ago. They’re all mixed together, and I don’t really remember which songs came from which source — except that I was forcefully reminded of it when I tried to do something as simple as transfer the songs to my wife’s iPod.

Now, let’s make this clear: I own the music. I own the Mac. I own the iPod (OK, I’m borrowing my wife’s iPod for a trip). I listen to the music on the Mac, and now want to listen to it on the iPod. No piracy is going on.

I go to copy over all my music onto the iPod and get an error — iTunes tells me that certain songs (the ones I had purchased through iTunes) are copy-protected and can not be used on my wife’s iPod. Now think about this for a second. Had I pirated (stolen) the songs, I could copy them over no problem. But since I paid for them, I can’t do something as simple as listen to  songs on an iPod? What? (NOTE: there might have been a way to authorize the iPod or blah blah, but at that point I was just frustrated and didn’t want to troubleshoot and figure out something that shouldn’t be that difficult.)

Now, when I offer a product (like my e-books over there in the right-hand column) for sale, I want to provide a quality product at a fair price. I want my customers to get a pristine file, the best one available. I ensure that it looks good, has no formatting problems, no typos, and it’s the newest and best version. If someone is paying me money, I want them to have a pleasant, easy experience. I want them to get value for their money — so even if there were a pirated version of my e-books floating around out there, I want the customer who buys from me to get a superior product. I want their $2.99 to buy them peace of mind (knowing they’re doing the right thing and supporting the author), a pristinely-formatted file, “tech support” if they have issues with it, and the ability to legitimately use that file and enjoy it — even if they trade in their Nook for a new Kindle 3.

And that’s why I don’t put DRM on my files (NOTE: e-books you buy directly from my website have no DRM, and neither do my e-books at Amazon, B&N, or Smashwords. Apple, Kobo, and Sony currently put DRM on files and there’s no way for me to opt out of it, like I did with Amazon.) If a customer asks, I’m also happy to send them my e-books in any other format they’d like. It’s not that I support piracy — in fact, I think many “anti-DRM” arguments are actually “I want stuff for free” rationalizations. And I’m not supporting taking DRM off files that have it — that’s against the law. But I personally generally avoid buying files that have DRM attached — there are plenty of DRM-free e-books out there that I choose to buy instead.

So, back to my song problem. I have the iPod connected, and my choice is now: (a) buy another copy of these songs through my wife’s account or figure out how to “authorize” her iPod, (b) not have the songs I paid for on the iPod, (c) find a way to download something to strip the DRM off the files (against the law), or (d) download pirated copies of the songs I paid for and not have to deal with DRM at all (also illegal, but by far the easiest and quickest solution). This is why, in my opinion, DRM is broken: it doesn’t actually stop piracy, it just annoys legitimate customers — even to the point of pushing them toward piracy! Maybe someday they’ll invent some better, less invasive form of DRM, but the way it is today just sucks.

So, what would you do? And why should DRM force purchasers to make that choice?

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