Entelligence: Have we demonized DRM?

Michael Gartenberg
M. Gartenberg|09.24.09

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Entelligence: Have we demonized DRM?
Entelligence is a column by technology strategist and author Michael Gartenberg, a man whose desire for a delicious cup of coffee and a quality New York bagel is dwarfed only by his passion for tech. In these articles, he'll explore where our industry is and where it's going -- on both micro and macro levels -- with the unique wit and insight only he can provide.

There was a lot of discussion when Steve Jobs wrote his famous letter about DRM a few years ago. I think the letter and the timing were brilliant back in the day and it put the issue of DRM squarely where it belongs, with the content companies and not companies such as Apple or Microsoft. I agree with the overall assertion that companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Real will sell more songs without DRM. But there's more to the story, and asking consumers about DRM is a loaded question. The analogy best given to me by one of my non-digerati friends is asking, "would you rather get 3 slices of pizza for $5, or all you can eat at a buffet for $5?" The vast majority will likely opt for the latter, even though that same vast majority will still only eat three slices.

I actually like DRM when it's used to help create new business models that just couldn't exist otherwise.

I dislike DRM as much as the next person (unless of course the next person is Cory Doctorow) but I also don't mind DRM solutions that doesn't cause me hassles or lock me out of my content. I actually like DRM when it's used to help create new business models that just couldn't exist otherwise. Take subscription services for example. Sure, I'd love a service that would allow me to download unlimited content in high bitrate MP3 format for a reasonable fee every month. Except economics and greed will never let that happen (although I suspect we'd see a lot users sign up for about 30-60 days).

Am I alone in not being upset at the concept of DRM? In fact, Apple did sell two billion+ songs protected in this fashion before they removed DRM from their content so it seems that for many consumers, DRM is either a non-issue or something they are willing to put up with. The reality is DRM is neither good nor bad, like most things, it's how it gets used.

The real problem with DRM and protected content is when a user bumps into it while trying to use content they purchased in a legitimate way. A few years ago, I was locked out of my Microsoft Reader content by some wayward bits with no way to get at the content I owned. More recently, Amazon told me I downloaded a book too many times and therefore couldn't read it on a new device, even though it was no longer on the old ones. By contrast, Apple allows up to five computers to access protected content, so I activate and de-activate the machines I want to use and if for some reason a machine crashes and takes an activation with it, I can de-activate all my computers and get my licenses back.

Yes, I know most DRM solutions can and will be circumvented. If there's a lock on the door, someone is always going to try to find the key and usually they will. It's not about that. Folks that are looking to avoid paying for stuff will usually find a way. I'm talking about folks who are willing and looking to legally acquire content.

As my former colleague David Card used to preach, technology should be used to help create new business models, not attempt to preserve old ones. That's pretty much the story for me and DRM. So, what do you think? Is DRM inherently evil or just misunderstood?

Michael Gartenberg is vice president of strategy and analysis at Interpret, LLC. His weblog can be found at gartenblog.net, and he can be emailed at gartenberg AT gmail DOT com. Views expressed here are his own.

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