Here’s a thought. I just had lunch with someone who works for a broadcaster and is wrestling with the idea of distributing content online and we both agreed that what’s missing from the whole DRM debate is a strong case for “just enough DRM”. He pointed me to Chris Anderson’s post about this from back in December, where Anderson says this:
The real question is this: how much DRM is too much? Clearly the marketplace thinks that the protections in the iPod and iTunes are acceptable, since they’re selling like mad. Likewise, the marketplace thought that the protections in Sony’s digital music players (until recently, they didn’t support MP3s natively) were excessive and they rejected them. Indeed, we were one of the first to criticize Sony in a big way for getting that balance wrong. And, for what it’s worth, Test and the rest of our reviews do take points off for intrusive DRM when we encounter it.
Anderson wrote the post in response to a remark by noted copyfighter Cory Doctorow that Wired was “going soft” on DRM by featuring reviews of media players with bad DRM implementations. He goes on to illustrate his point by saying he has installed Windows Media Center in his home (which has quite a lot of DRM and doesn’t, for instance, play Divx files) because, at the end of the day, he “and more importantly my wife” couldn’t be bothered with something that was more DRM-free but, essentially, a lot more geeky.
I’m not going to pick a fight with the Cory Doctorows of the world because they’re far more informed and cleverer than me, but let’s face it: we’re going to have to have some DRM. At some level, there has to be an appropriate level of control over content to make it economically feasible for people to produce it at anything like an industrial level. And on the other side of things, it’s clear that the people who make the consumer technology that ordinary people actually use – the Microsofts and Apples of the world – have already accepted and embraced this. The argument has already moved on.
Chris Anderson uses the iPod as an example of DRM which “the marketplace” will accept, but here’s my question: what are the best implementations of DRM out there, which balance the needs of the provider and the consumer without getting in the way of either? Does such a thing exist? And who is advocating it with as much conviction, homework and intelligence as the copyfighters?
UPDATE: This caused a small ripple of interest – I’m beginning to realise that writing about DRM is something that should only be attempted while in possession of a thick skin. In the comments, a bunch of people argued that the DRM argument is by no means won, something which I didn’t actually say. What I meant was that a lot of very big companies, and most of the world’s digital media users, were acting as if it were. I used imprecise language, certainly, but where on earth can you use imprecise language if not on a blog? One commenter (Tom Loosemore, of the BBC) raised the issue of business models, which got me thinking that perhaps current DRM is a product of shaky – or rather out-of-date – business practices, and perhaps it’s those we should be looking at. Out on the web at large, two Internet Gods, Doc Searls and Jon Udell, linked to the post, the first in despair (the most depressing thing he’s read in a long time, apparently), the second in disagreement but with some interesting things to say about talent abundance/scarcity.
And there’s a very good debate over at Burningbird, where the inability to spell my name correctly is more than compensated by the quality of the thinking.
But no-one – and I mean no-one – responded to the main question: is there an application of DRM (or at least something that looks like DRM) out there which actually works (and the implication in there, if you didn’t get it, was that every time I’ve encountered it it does not, OK?). The only sites referred to were emusic (which doesn’t use DRM at all), AllOfMP3 (which, as far as I’m aware, doesn’t send royalties to artists) and Wippit (which I believe does use DRM, just not everywhere, or at least with a light touch). It would appear that the answer to my original question is a resounding “no” from this little survey.