DRM isn’t dead, it is always regrouping

Several triumphal postings that the RIAA has declared DRM “dead” have been proved wrong. It turns out the Recording Industry Association of America’s spokesperson was not speaking emphatically, but ironically, in reply to a question, “DRM is dead, isn’t it?” The anti-DRM crowd rushed to affirm the truth of the statement, but, unfortunately, DRM isn’t dead. It’s regrouping. The simple fact is that most people, when offered a convenient form of playback with lock-in at the device level, so that they see playback on a particular device as a benefit, are perfectly content to have DRM content.

iTunes continues to encrypt movies and many songs, for example. Amazon’s movie and TV downloads are locked to an application for untethered playback but can be streamed in a browser, making it’s DRM a compromise that splits the difference for most buyers—Mac, Linux and smartphone users can’t play an Amazon movie when disconnected from the store, but the Windows crowd is happy. Amazon’s Kindle is a DRM system that interoperates with its e-books, as are various applications running on the iPhone. DRM is everywhere, often presented as a compatibility benefit rather than a anti-copying system.

I am not arguing for DRM, so please don’t assail me for doing so. The point is that when anti-DRM activists crow about the RIAA’s slowly having learned that treating customers like criminals is a “victory” for open access, they create the impression customers no longer need to ask the question, “Will this play on any device?” In the book world, DRM is so deeply engrained that it is likely most of the e-books sold in the next five years will become inaccessible due to changes in devices and supported formats, DRM being just one of several factors that will change as the market matures.

Compatibility, particularly forward compatibility, should be the key benefit sold to readers. If you are going to sell an e-book today, make sure you are prepared to make it work on future platforms or be prepared for customers to drop your brand and books like hot rocks when they learn others do provide forward compatibility. The easiest way to ensure that compatibility today is to avoid using DRM. Enough said.