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Do we really need DRM?

DRM exists, mainly, to keep content safe and minimise piracy. In the process, it manages to be an irksome, cumbersome beast that often hinders legitimate buyers from full use of the product in question.

Digital rights management (DRM) exists, mainly, to keep content safe and minimise piracy. In the process, it manages to be an irksome, cumbersome beast that often hinders legitimate buyers from full use of the product in question.

(Credit: Pirates of the Caribbean, Desert Operations image by A47, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Depending on the media in question, DRM works in various ways.

These include:

  • Limiting the devices on which the media can be consumed
  • Limiting the number of times the media can be downloaded
  • Limiting the number of devices onto which the media can be loaded
  • Making use of the media contingent on a subscription; that is, if the subscription lapses, you can no longer use the media
  • Making the media only available for use as long as the user maintains an internet connection
  • Limiting the number of activations, eg, for videogames
  • Region-locking content, eg, websites such as Hulu and online stores that authenticate IP addressed to lock out specific regions.

I'm all for protecting the rights of creators, but the way these restrictions are applied often cause inconvenience to the legal purchaser.

For example, in the case of music, the buyer can be restricted from making backups of the music they have purchased; gamers can't play a game that they have legally purchased in the case of events beyond their control, such as internet connection failing; content may become inaccessible if the user purchases a new computer or device; or, if a service shuts down, the user's access to future downloads has effectively disappeared with it. Content may even perform slower due to added software.

This, of course, in and of itself, leads to piracy — not only does the pirate get a free copy of the content, it's free of restrictions.

It's not the only reason for piracy; but it's often cited by frustrated buyers who can't legally access the content that they want.

Bear in mind that content distributors often state, in an attempt to mitigate the annoyance caused by these restrictions, that what you purchase isn't a copy of the content; it's the right to view it. Digital content is relatively new; prior to the widespread digital distribution of media, which has only occurred in the last 10-15 years, the only way to buy content was to exchange money for a physical product that you could then take home and do with as you pleased. Rentals were different; but digital sales are being spoken of as a purchase and treated, via DRM, as a long-term rental; that is, the distributor has the right to restrict your usage of and retract the content at any time.

But what happens when DRM is removed? Well, contrary to what content publishers seem to think, it doesn't devolve into a mess of piratin' everything up in here …

Apple eschewed DRM of its music in 2009, and has since grown to be the biggest music store in the world. Comedians Louis CK and Aziz Ansari both released DRM-free shows to great success. Sci-fi publisher Baen Books has discovered that having free-to-download DRM-free content on its website has increased sales. Tor Books is about to launch a new DRM-free ebookstore; and let's not forget Amanda Hocking, who published her work on DRM-free ebook site Smashwords — so it's not just the already-famous who can benefit.

So not only has DRM proven that it doesn't work in the piracy-prevention arena, it's been also proven possible that a creator or publisher can achieve success without it.

Meanwhile, what are the actual benefits to DRM? Well, if you buy a product legally instead of downloading it illegally, you're more likely to get a high-quality product and you reduce the chances of downloading something unsavoury. But DRM doesn't have anything to do with that — they're benefits of buying a product from a safe, legitimate vendor.

From a seller's point of view, DRM locks users into using the product in a specific way. It doesn't prevent piracy by a long stretch. From a buyer's point of view, we really can't see that it provides anything at all.

So why is it still here?