DRM: It’s Going to Get Worse, and May Not Get Better

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SharpMusique Screenshot

Originally uploaded by sogrady.

Let me be upfront about one thing here: I don’t like DRM, and I probably never will. In my job as an analyst, I try always to be open minded about technologies and their implications. I can’t claim to be perfectly unbiased, as I do have predispositions to certain technologies like thin clients as discussed here, but I think one would be hard pressed to build a case that I’m a bigot one way or another. Or, for that matter, that I’m reluctant to alter my thinking when faced with a new set of compelling data. In that vein, I positively love the John Maynard Keynes quote cited here:

“When facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?”

But DRM is, I’m sad to say, the lone exception that mindset. Candidly, I’d say it’d be near impossible for anyone to persuade me that DRM is a positive, a good thing. With few exceptions, I think in large part DRM is an attempt to solve the wrong problem. Here’s how I put it previously:

Basically, I believe that any given business will have three types of customers: those that will pay you, those that might pay you, and those that will never pay you. Without over generalizing, I think that far, far too many businesses focus an unnecessary amount of attention on the latter category, when they should be focused a.) on the folks that actually pay them, and b.) moving folks from the second category into the first.

DRM, as it’s employed within the record industry, seems to me to heavily penalize the first two categories in a desperate attempt to monetize the third. This attempt to squeeze blood from the proverbial stone not only doesn’t recognize the fact that even folks that don’t pay you can still be of material benefit in sales and marketing, it also doesn’t recognize that it might actually drive folks from the first two categories in the wrong direction – to the third.

Case in point is one of Berlind’s latest where as the owner of $20K worth of audio equipment (as an aside – 20K? I must be in the wrong damn business ;), he can’t play the music he’s purchased because of the incompatability of various DRM systems. For a more mundane example, there’s my friend who bought a couple of seemingly ordinary CD’s only to discover that she couldn’t even get them onto the iPod in the first place. The CD’s didn’t call out this limitation beforehand, of course, including only some vague wording about “unauthorized duplication.” Why? Because how many iPod owner buyers would skip buying the disc if they knew that, and the record companies can’t have that – instead they’d prefer that they buy it once in the store and then again online. That practice so embarrassed the folks from the Sony band Switchfoot, BTW, that they posted to a Sony forum explaining to their fans how to get around it – linking to this application (a post which Sony appears to have subsequently removed, unsurprisingly).

What are these fine, upstanding citizens to do? They’re not looking to steal music, they’re not looking to pirate it or resell it for profit. They just want to listen to their music, where they want, when they want, on the device they want. So they begin looking at alternatives like Allofmp3.com; not so that they don’t have to pay – they’re fine with that, but so that they don’t have to jump through the absurd hoops placed on them to monetize an audience that won’t pay them either way. And while I know opinions about this vary, as DRM and the RIAA do have some defenders out there – even a few who read this space – I personally can’t blame them. The scariest thing is that I think these experiences are just the tip of the iceberg – as Mr. Bray says,

What all the DRM dreamers don’t want to admit is that 95% or more of the population hasn’t yet encountered DRM, and when they do, they aren’t going to like it. They’re going to scream and scream and scream and get mad as hell and not take it any more. I’m talking about the honest people who play by the rules: they buy a house and the vendor moves out and pulls no more strings. They buy sofas and flowers and wine and paper and the store where they bought them doesn’t try to limit what you can do with them, and when the digital-media vendors try to horn in on this relationship, the response is going to be “you and whose army?”

The really unfortunate thing here is that it doesn’t have to be that way. Why were people pushed towards Napster in the first place? If you’re on the RIAA’s side, you might argue that it’s people are intrinsically inclined to steal. For my part, I think it’s because it was easy, and the experience was better – people got what they wanted now. Why, for example, is the iTunes/iPod combination the most popular by an order of magnitude? Because it’s easy.

Well, non-DRM services such as emusic.com will *always* be easier than obtaining files illegally through P2P networks, so unless you’re obsessed with the impossible dream of ensuring that every single person who’s ever listened to your music pays you, they’re a nice compromise. But instead, the RIAA is apparently set on continuing to alienate their customers, and repeating the mistakes of that past. And in the process, instead of converting more “might pay” customers to “paying” customers, they’re spurring defections from the “paying” crowd. Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.

One final note to Mr. Berlind – this statement:

If you’re a customer of Apple’s iTunes digital music store, you will eventually reach that point of no return where you’re basically committed for life to Apple’s DRM scheme known as Fairplay.

is only partially true. The inset picture here is of an application called SharpMusique. Written by DVD Jon (whose blog is appropriately titled “So Sue Me”) and ported to C# for the Mono stack, it’s currently available on Linux but thanks to Mono’s cross platform compatability should soon be available for Windows. Why is it important? Because what you’re looking at is the new Detroit Cobras album available for purchase in the fair interface to the iTunes Music store. SharpMusique allows you to purchase anything from that store, DRM free – it even permits redownloads of your purchased content. Or so my friends tell me, as I won’t confirm that I’ve used the purchase functionality myself. Might be worth a look, if you’re addicted to iPods.


  1. And what's also insane is that some online vendors make it almost impossible for you to find out in advance whether or not their music CD's are playable on your equipment! http://ddmcd.squarespace.com/managing-technology/

  2. DRM: It’s Going to Get Worse, and May Not Get Better

    A great read by Stephen O’Grady.But DRM is, I’m sad to say, the lone exception that mindset. Candidly, I’d say it’d be near impossible for anyone to persuade me that DRM is a positive, a good thing. With few exceptions, I think in large part DRM is an att

  3. how frustrating is that? totally ridiculous.

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