I want to write up the abstract of what I talked about concerning digital rights management in the last episode of the show. For the full on extended take, listen to me talk. Here is the summary of that.
I know DRM and spent a piece of my career as the guy tasked with the plumbing of making DRM vending systems work. From this work and my own experiences with it, I know that when DRM works it is a happy exception. The forces of entropy work against it, and even when a DRM system of any kind works, it is the opposite of “future-proof.” It is in fact “future-fragile.”
Be it an ebook from Gemstar, a song from iTunes, a movie from whatever service or any digital good with DRM, it will almost certainly work at the moment you purchased it. The hardware you have matches that expected, your OS runs the program that enforces the rights, any servers necessary to verify credentials are up and running. It will work at that instant, and it will almost certainly work tomorrow and will probably work in six months. Will it work in a year? Maybe, maybe not. Will it work in ten years? Almost certainly not.
This is what I think about when I hear whispers of chips on the motherboard that enforce digital rights or allow locking of content to that specific machine. What happens when machine architectures change or you upgrade machines or reinstall your OS or otherwise change it so that your system no longer matches the expected paramters? These concerns are usually laughed off by the business with a “well, we have migration procedures …” or some such. I laughed them off when it was my job (but despite the laughter I built in the migration procedures.) Now, what happens when the company that does the migration no longer exists or no longer is in that business? The company I worked for is no longer in business, so if you were relying on them you’d be screwed. If you had bought into their party line and ran money through their system in 2000, you’d be out of luck today. Being a loyal customer back then would have been foolish, because your loyalty to them as a customer was not reciprocated with loyalty to you as a company.
I’ve spent very little of my money on digital goods protected with DRM. What little I have purchased, I can no longer access. It’s going to take a lot to convince me to ever dump more money in, and a simple handwave of these concerns is wildly insufficient. The primary step is to price them according to this value proposition.
I love Fictionwise as a company. I know that their preference is for the DRM free books and that policy plus the prices are set by the publishers not them. However, I’m not dropping $10 at their store for a DRM protected ebook when for $6 I can buy the paperback and be assured that I can read it next year and the year after. If any pricing system for DRM goods doesn’t reflect the reduced value to me and my risk of inusability in the future, I’m not paying. The books I download from Project Gutenberg as text files, I have faith that I will be able to read on any machine I own for the rest of my life. The books I bought from Peanut Press a few years ago are already unreadable by me. DRM protected files are essentially disposable goods, the digital equivalent of cheap plastic geegaws from a cereal box.
Although I have and express moral objections to DRM, what I’m presenting here is sheer empiricism and pragmatism. Don’t put your money into DRM’d goods unless they are really really cheap because when you buy them you get less than what you pay for. The best you can hope for is that someone will come up with a program to let you crack the goods you legally paid for out of their protected shell, an act that makes you a criminal despite your having been a paying customer. Any technical and legal system that criminalizes you for using goods you paid for in the manner intended is a bad system in both regards.
There is a great world of content out there on the other side of the DRM wall. Support that and help grow that world, and our shared future gets brighter. Dump money in to DRM schemes, help pump them up and ensure ever more of our collective knowledge is left inaccessible to the future and you darken our future. The choice, as always, is yours.