The War on Copying

Here’s an article/op-ed piece on DRM, stressing that current schemes lack flexibility and convenience. A quote:

Many companies mistakenly focus on the technology when trying to understand DRM and fail to consider the real social issues that managing content involves. For example, DRM schemes that tie content to a single PC fail to address the needs of, say, a child of divorced parents who lives in two homes. Even more common is the person who wants to play music at home, at work, in the car, on a portable player, and at a friend’s house. The killer app for digital content is the connected home, yet most DRM schemes undermine consumers’ ability to easily move content between devices. Protection isn’t just about security; you need to consider convenience, as well.

It is in these real-world individual issues that DRM will meet the most resistance. Content owners want strict definitions of stealing and honesty. However, schemes that are too difficult to work with or appear insensitive to individual circumstances may drive “honest” people to reconsider what honesty really means.

What I’m discussing here is the ebook side of things, not music, which have different dynamics. I do agree with the above statements about the problems with DRM. The DRM companies try to hide this fact, but the consumers notice. I’ve seen it cited by the guys at Fictionwise that on books for which they’ve gone from DRM to non-DRM (because the publisher allowed them to) the unprotected book outsells the previous version by an order of magnitude. That sounds like a bad trade to me: reduce (not eliminate) the risk that someone will read for free in return for lower margin (the DRM guys take a slice), and 90% reduced sales.

My belief is that there are thieves and their are customers, and there is little or no overlap between the two. The former have plenty of time and the latter have plenty of money. Customers want the goods, a simple convenient purchase procedure, clean well-formatted books that they can put on their PDAs and get the hell on with their lives. Thieves will spend all day scouring pirate newsgroups and FTP sites looking for something. Both exist, but I really don’t think the thieves cut into the sales. The insistence on DRM is really cutting off noses to spite faces. Ultimately, though, it is completely ineffective. The majority of the things I see traded in the newsgroups are books like Harry Potters that have never had an electronic edition. This is perhaps indicative that this is a fight not worth participating in. Cede this to the scumbags, don’t worry about them, and proceed taking cash from the many customers who are looking to give you money.

I’m not just pulling this dynamic out of my ass. Fictionwise also moves copies of public domain books that could easily be downloaded from any of a number of places. FW has established a level of trust with their customers, such that they’ll happily pay a few bucks for a book they could get for free from Project Gutenberg. What they get for their money is convenience, a familiar experience, and a book formatted in a preferred format (for me, it is iSilo). There is no reason to think that the existence of pirate copies detracts more from sales than legitimate Project Gutenberg copies. Personally, I don’t think it detracts at all. Yes, I could probably find copies of something I want given enough time, but I’d rather use money rather than spend my precious time on the hunt. Make the purchase convenient, the books reasonably priced and the experience sexy, and you don’t have to worry about anything else. Customers don’t like the DRM, it costs everyone extra money, and in the final analysis it is orthogonal to the problem.

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Dave Slusher is a blogger, podcaster, computer programmer, author, science fiction fan and father.