A set of old, worn wooden drawers

DRM (Digital Rights/Restrictions Management) is any technology that attempts to restrict the use and/or ownership of digital content. In its very broadest sense, a DRM solution may be as simple as using JavaScript to turn off right-click functionality on a web page (an attempt to stop people from saving images). It may be a digital watermark that is visible to the end-user, or hidden. It may be a technology as complex as a full encryption system. DRM is on CDs, DVDs, Blu-Ray, most cable and satellite television, electronic books and games. These industries spend hundreds of millions of dollars on digital restriction management technologies every year. And without exception, DRM fails to work. A few examples:

CD AudioKey2Audio20022002Felt-tip marker
DVDCSS19981999Software (DeCSS)
HD-DVDAACS20062007Leaked key
Blu-RayHDCP, AACS, BD+20062007Various

Let’s look at some of the problems DRM creates for the consumer.

DRM subverts or eliminates fair-use
Depending on how it is implemented, DRM can “lock” media to one device or service, meaning that the music track or video you bought can be played back on only one particular device; it cannot shifted to anything else.

DRM complicates fair-use copying: for the purpose of personal archiving (making it impossible to back up that copy of Finding Nemo that your four-year old plays over and over again), education (meaning that an instructor cannot show clips from a movie to a film class), and format shifting (demanding that you re-purchase of the same album when it moves from CD to SACD).

DRM needlessly complicates, slows or (in cases of catastrophic failure) eliminates access to media
DRM makes life frustrating for the ordinary, law-abiding citizen unless it is done very, very well. DRM is used so that you cannot skip past trailers or (ironically) FBI copyright infringement warnings before watching your movie. DRM slows games and applications to a crawl as validity is checked and, if the authentication servers are down (or if the service ends, or your subscription runs out), deny you access completely to media you have purchased.
The most important problem: DRM does not stop people from copying media, and it inconveniences consumers who try to play by the rules.
The relative ease and speed with which DRM schemes are broken – and the fact that it only needs to happen once in order to create millions of copies – means that anyone who wants to copy digital content will do so. The only people inconvenienced are those who actually try to follow the rules, which leads to deep consumer frustration and bitterness.

What’s the solution?

DRM is expensive, complex, ineffective, and needlessly aggravating. It also never works. The solution – which we will discuss next – is to use aikido: drop DRM and watermarks, embrace the fact that digital duplication is cost-free, and leverage the power of networking to create success in the marketplace.

Photograph by Kat Northern Lights Man, used under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 2.0 Generic license

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