DRM: Bad For Customers, Bad For Publishers

The news came out last week that the biggest music consumers — the ones throwing down cash for music — are also the biggest music sharers. Alan Wexblat at Copyfight says simply: “those who share, care” (BBC link via TeleRead).

Rather than taking legal action against downloaders, the music industry needs to entice them to use legal alternatives, the report said.

Lawsuits against customers go hand in hand with DRM in limiting community buzz for a particular artist or song. It would seem that music is subject to the rules of the Google Economy too, but losing evangelists for the latest Britney Spears{#XfFSogqWv7s&offerid=78941&type=3&subid=0&tmpid=1826&RD_PARM1=http%253A%252F%252Fphobos.apple.com%252FWebObjects%252FMZStore.woa%252Fwa%252FviewAlbum%253FselectedItemId%253D28210780%2526playListId%253D28211057%2526originStoreFront%253D143441%26partnerId%3D30} song wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Her record company is going to spend millions promoting the album anyway and teenage girls will buy it because it’s obvious. The problem, as Bob Frankston explains, is the non-obvious:

DRM is a way of assuring that the “content owner” can maintain control. That seems innocuous in itself but it has the effect of limiting the marketplaces’ ability to change. This makes sense in limited cases as it allows investors to recoup the cost of their investment and make a profit but if DRM works too well it prevents growth. A marketplace is a dynamic system that keeps changing. Why doesn’t the marketplace simply devolve into chaos? The reason is that it is an evolutionary process — one that provides opportunity for creating new results. We can think of this opportunity in terms of Chris Anderson’s long tail — it represents the value to be discovered rather than what is obvious.

Marketplaces that work can capture the results that are viable while surviving those that don’t work. They renew themselves dynamically. Without this process of renewal marketplaces stagnate and fail. While the goal of DRM may be noble, if taken too far it leaves us impoverished.

(via CopyFight).

In short, the value of these music publishers’ back catalogs is dependent on passionate individuals sharing their love and creating a buzz. Hip hop culture was created by sampling music that the record companies had largely forgotten. That sampling renewed interest in the original works and created a huge market for material that would have otherwise sat on the shelf. Artists can ask to try such things now, but the fact is that content owners just say no. DRM and overbearing copyright law eliminates the power of fans to spread the joy.

Besides cutting off the tail that feeds them, DRM just plain gets in the way. Technosmart Jenny Levine has been stung by DRM more than once, and former RIAA chief Hilary Rosen says she can’t stand DRM either (though she’s been accused of sock puppeting). Heck, DRM can even make the US Constitution — a public domain document — unusable.

The problem is that DRM goes beyond copyright and blocks activities that we used to take for granted as fair use. In a world where it’s increasingly difficult to differentiate between creator and consumer, DRMed content risks being isolated and ignored.

Considering how easily most DRM can be cracked, one has to wonder what the real purpose is. If determined crackers can always break it, but it gets in the way of average honest users, why bother? The cynical answer is that record companies want to use DRM to force you to re-buy your music regularly. That’s certainly what HBO is doing with television.

Mac users beware: A lot of reports are coming in that Apple has added “trusted computing” to their Intel developer builds{#14813}. This was a fear of mine when Apple announced the Intel switch.