Digital Directions: DRM: The Battle Observed
Digital rights management (DRM) is the most contentious topic in the world of digital media. The battle over DRM shows no signs of abating, and its outcome will shape the digital media landscape for decades to come. Digital rights management, however, is a bit of a misnomer. It is not about managing rights, per se, but about controlling access to and use of content. It is the application of technology to enforce a licensing agreement between content provider and receiver.
Most media organizations favor the use of some method of DRM. New risks to rights holders inherent in the ability to copy and transmit digital media freely and instantaneously must be met with new safeguards: license enforcement via DRM. Without such safeguards, the economic vehicle that drives and supports the creation of new works may be at risk. The record industry is often held up as a poster child to illustrate the potential danger of these risks. DRM is viewed as a necessary requirement in a digital distribution approach that protects content creators’ rights and livelihoods.
The importance of DRM in creating successful digital distribution programs was illustrated in January 2008, when Steve Jobs established distribution relationships with virtually every major studio to enable movie rentals through iTunes. This was an important event not only for Apple, but also for the evolution of digital media at large. The ability for iTunes to manage and enforce the rental terms through DRM was a critical factor in securing these deals.
The anti-DRM camp, including such organizations as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, maintains that, in practice, DRM simply doesn’t work, that it primarily penalizes legal purchasers of content by making it difficult to use and manage works they have purchased. Any iTunes account holder with multiple playback devices knows this all too well.
An Orwellian Media Nightmare?
The fly in the DRM ointment is that infringers can easily overcome any technical hurdle that DRM imposes, with a modicum of skill and sufficient motivation to do so. The fallibility of DRM is so generally acknowledged that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) includes provisions that criminalize the circumvention of DRM. In July 2001, Dmitry Sklyarov was arrested for creating a product that overrides the DRM in Adobe’s e-book copy protection. His crime was the creation of technology that could be used to make pirated copies of e-books, not for actually pirating e-books. A jury later found that Sklyarov did not willfully violate U.S. law, and he was released.
The pro-DRM lobby is pushing to go beyond the DMCA to have federal requirements set for any device capable of content playback to comply with DRM standards. The anti-DRM camp holds that such a policy infringes upon free speech, innovation and fair use. A darker conspiracy is also suspected: a vision of media and technology companies—often with the same parent corporation—setting standards that support corporate interests, with the Feds providing the muscle on enforcement. This closed-door cronyism may pave the way to an Orwellian media nightmare in which unseen forces constantly monitor and control what we see, hear and say.
There is a clear need for open discussion on how these standards are set. Having said that, the rhetoric often runs toward the paranoiac. Most media companies would prefer a superior DRM solution in which no bona fide user would be adversely affected, but infringers would be stopped in their tracks. Alas, such is not the state of the art.
Even if such an ideal DRM technology were to exist, I wonder if we are all just missing the point. In the zeal to lock down content, are publishers demonstrating a lack of understanding of the dynamics and opportunities in digital, networked content?
Digital, networked content, particularly book content, when not restricted by DRM, has the potential to dynamically interact with other works in the form of links and collections; to connect and interact with communities instantaneously and globally; and to interact with software applications, such as search engines. This interaction can create tremendous value—a whole far greater than the sum of its parts. None of this dynamic interaction can take place if the content is locked inside DRM, as it is applied today. DRM allows content to be distributed and sold, but not to generate value through dynamic interaction.
The business models used to drive the creation of content will need to evolve in a DRM-less world. Such revenue models will likely vary depending upon the audience. In education, for example, monetization might be derived more from charging for certification exams rather than the textbook to prepare for the exam. Contextual advertising also has been proven to be a surprisingly robust revenue model. Author Cory Doctorow has observed that by making his works freely available, he actually sells more books. We need to be open to exploring these new models.
The case of iTunes’ movie rentals indicates that DRM is likely a necessary, though possibly transitional, aspect of many digital distribution scenarios in order to allay the fears of content creators. It gets the ball rolling, allowing participation prior to the emergence of new revenue models.
In the meantime, we need to continue to push for DRM approaches that are more elegant and do not impede legal uses of content, and to keep federal intervention to a minimum. In addition, we should continue to explore business models that are not dependent upon DRM, to continue to discover the tremendous value of accessible, fully networked digital content.
If we focus solely on short-term-risk mitigation and ignore the broader, long-term possibilities of digital media, then an opportunity truly will have been lost.
Andrew Brenneman is founder and president of Finitiv, a provider of digital content solutions. He has been leading digital media initiatives at major media and technology organizations for more than 20 years. Contact him at Andrew@Finitiv.com.