DRM and Pragmatism

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.

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Dave Slusher is a blogger, podcaster, computer programmer, author, science fiction fan and father. Member of the Podcast Hall of Fame class of 2022.

10 thoughts on “DRM and Pragmatism”

  1. There is a siren song with ITMS though; its convenience, seamless integration, etc. And I do like the “Just for You” part of the store.

    Maybe this will motivate me to get all the stuff I’ve gotten from ITMS transferred into a more universal format, while I still can.


  2. The bottom line is that we are moving away from ownership. This is a trend that started in software and has migrated to digital music and video. I have software with DRM which I can’t use unless I “Authorize” it at the mothership. While it decreases piracy, it will do nothing to build company loyalty. I love the software but hate the company. It leaves an opening for grass roots software to spring up quickly in the future. The same could be said for music and other entertainment. Millions of people are paying more than $600 a year for tv yet they are still bombarded with ads and programming which is 99% crap. What kind of value is this?

  3. tiltededge said: The bottom line is that we are moving away from ownership.

    I’ve thought about this at some length. First of all, “we” aren’t doing anything. Giant international companies are attempting to eliminate personally owned copies. Their wet dream is to get money every time you hear a song, to be paid for every sitcom you watch. They also want you to pay for the player with the coinslot and the bandwidth it requires.

    I am definitely not moving away from ownership. I just bought a big honkin’ disk to hold all the stuff I’ve gotten from eMusic or downloaded from the likes of the old MP3.com, Epitonic, Amazon, Kill Rock Stars, etc.

    People like to collect things. People who like shot glasses have shelves full of shot glasses. People who like music have shelves full of albums, or servers full of disk drives, depending on their storage preferences. People collect things because they perceive value in them. It’s in our nature to preserve what we consider valuable. Those who are particularly well off build libraries and museums.

    I don’t need to connect to a license server to play my Moody Blues albums wherever and on whatever equipment I wish. I don’t need to be online to load the albums I bought from eMusic onto my iRiver. I don’t need to wonder if Napster to Go or Rhapsody will still have the albums I like a year from now (a truely hypothetical argument since they don’t have most of the albums I like now anyway). I won’t have to choose between being able to play the Helldorado album I got last month and buying a better laptop next year. The idea of subscribing to a vast library is appealing. The fact that the contents of the library, and my access to it, is at the whim of a soulless corporation is not.

    (btw, There’s a free trial link for eMusic on my site if you’d like to check it out. I wouldn’t want anybody to boycott Dave because I posted a commercial link.)

  4. tiltededge

    DRM decreases piracy? I’d like to know how you arrive at that statement.

    DVD-CSS was supposed to make it impossible for me to copy a DVD and play the copy. It is DRM. It is total crap.

    The XBOX 360 was supposed to be DRM’ed to the nines, as was the original XBOX supposed to be protected as well. The 360 was cracked a month after it came out to store shelves.

  5. AMEN!

    And wait theres more – even in the ‘exception case’ when DRM ‘works’, the coolness of remix on the readwrite web will usually break. For example, even a simple username/password (that you have) in an rss feed creates a barrier to the free flow of stuff.

    Here is a little post with some of my thoughts inspired by Stephen Downes:

    Fang – Mike Seyfang – LearnDog

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