Monday, June 25, 2012

The Long Walk to DRM Freedom

The big debate today is still about DRM and whether it is necessary to prevent piracy . Some would argue that it is more of a sledgehammer to crack a virtual nut and mechanism that is actually failing to connect with its intended target? It is now becoming more widely accepted that it doesn’t deter professional piracy and anyone who wishes to crack it can do so with scripts which are available today on the internet. So the only people who DRM actually restricts and works against are the everyday consumers. The debate is taking a similar path as it did in the music industry, before they had that cathartic moment and went MP3. Some would suggest that it’s somewhat interesting that one of the major agents of change in the MP3 music e move at the end was Amazon and one of those that stood firm was Apple.  
DRM is about restricting, enforcing or controlling rights. In the physical book world it is basically about informing the person with the book, who owns the intellectual property and that it can’t be reproduced with permission. Obviously, the book owner can do anything they wish with the book and it was impossible for the rights owner do anything more than exert one’s rights. In the digital world nothing has changed but it is now easier to copy, reproduce, change a digital file and commercially reproduce or exploit it and therefore DRM is seen as a necessary a deterrent.
It is worth noting that without DRM we may have experienced widespread abuse as people started to use digital files. Therefore one could say it has worked and that it has given us time to adapt, understand and make the community aware of the issues. However, there comes a point when restrictions once thought as productive become counter productive. Some suggest that we have reached that point and it now time to switch off DRM, but have we considered the associated issues, or are we merely lurching into a move?
Is the removal of DRM a simple issue of switching it off, or are there associated issues that need to be considered at the same time? Will the change be a bottom up movement or will it be driven from the top down? Who will make that final move that will break the DRM shackles? Will it be the retailers , the publishers. The authors, the consumers, technology or a combination of events? The one thing that is becoming apparent is that the genie is out or coming out of the lamp. Getting it back in may be a public relations act too far.
At the heart of the issue remains the fear of the unknown, which often makes getting consensus across the industry more difficult and some would say impossible. The fear is about loss of revenues to all concerned. That lost revenue opportunity to make more money or reward for effort and creation. However, the fact is that no matter what figures are calculated, it is impossible to determine what is lost or effect would be and whether , those who take a different approach could have had the same result if they had remained within the confides of the rules. Some would suggest the It all guess work and often massaging figures to fit the argument.
As we move towards more online and towards on-demand services, then the need to download and ‘own’ actual files decreases and the protection, auditing and management required also change.  Some who are advocating a DRM free world are doing so knowing that in an online service will render DRM as we know it today irrelevant. Content truly can become agnostic when read through browser based readers. The file should actually never leave the server and when it does it is only cached locally. We have to seriously ask ourselves if we really want our library on a device or local server when we can get it 24x7 online on demand and read it literally on any device at any time and anywhere. Some would suggest  that those who say this is not the real world today may be the same people who never thought the internet would make it passed the dirt track and become the super highway we have today.
What is certain is that we will not all move and switch off DRM at the same hour on the same day and some will take time to see the light and act with great caution. So what do we need to think about as we move away from DRM?
Ownership – do we own, rent individually or subscribe to a service? This change itself demands the control of access rights and windows. Today we do not allow the first sale doctrine to digital, but in a rental world this becomes irrelevant it only remains if we sell the file to the consumer. Some would suggest that the way we have distributed digital files to all, is itself questionable and if we can’t work on a cloud based distribution ourselves how would we expect consumers to do it?
The library lending model  is perfectly suited to the online on-demand model. The commercial rental model still requires to be addressed but DRM becomes a none issue as demonstrated by services such as Bloomsbury Online and many institutional academic services.
Permission and usage rights still need to be documented and available to be viewed. A rights registry which covers permissions and sub rights would make sense but unfortunately is unlikely to happen.
Removing DRM is not about finding ways to reduce the market clout of some. This is naïve as the benefits would apply equally to them and iTunes still dominates music in an MP3 world.
So rather than debating the removal of DRM should we be now discussing how we will operate in a DRM free world and what we need to consider today to de-risk the fear that is holding us back from moving forward.   

1 comment:

Unknown said...

In regards to browser based reading, I think it is easy to overlook the fact that such systems would likely include methods to prevent unauthorized access, prevent extraction of content from the Browser DOM, prevent access to the cache, etc. In many ways, this results in a more onerous system than DRM for a few reasons:
1. Web access can always be monitored and recorded by ISP's, governments, marketers, etc. whereas offline reading can be fully private.
2. Web access can always be denied/ended/censored. If I hold a file I can always find ways to read it, even with DRM - as you point out.

Also, the appeal of paying for "getting something" vs that of "accessing something" leads me to believe that online reading will remain a nice complement to most ebook retail systems rather than the main dish.