Why I Hate DRM

Digital Rights Management, or Copy Protection, to give it its old name, is all around us. It makes sure that we have bought the books on our Kindle, and that we have bought our copy of Windows 8. It ensures that the hard-working writers, artists and programmers get paid. Without it pirates would steal all their creations and give them away for free. DRM is a good thing, right?

Wrong. DRM is the best way there is to alienate your customers, and it doesn't stop piracy. It is the worst of both worlds. And this is why.

A few years ago I bought an unabridged DRM'd audio book from Amazon as a Christmas gift for a friend. It was in mp3, but my friend doesn't have an mp3 player, he only has a CD player. I needed to burn the mp3 to CDs and give it to the friend as a pile of CDs.

The DRM gave me one chance to burn it to 23 CDs. It was not a hands-free operation. I had to note where each CD finished, as a five digit index number, and start the next one at the same place. It was a long-winded and terrifying process. Half-way through I thought I had got it wrong and duplicated almost an entire CD. Remember this was a gift; it was bad enough to hand over a stack of CDs with labels written in felt-tip, now I had to give it along with a note apologising for the mistake.

As soon as I had burned the CDs once, I could have duplicated them any number of times without the DRM getting in the way; it was entirely pointless to restrict the number of times I could burn them. I have never bought another mp3 audio book from Amazon, I don't even consider looking for them there, and I never will buy one from there again unless it comes DRM-free.

Every bit of DRM you put in will annoy some innocent users. The more you put in, the larger the fraction of your paying customers you irritate. If, like Kindle, you allow them to read an ebook on up to five readers, there will always be some innocent customer with six readers. There will always be the customer who wants to lend a book to their aunt, because their aunt will love it and buy the entire series.

No DRM stops piracy, you only have to look on the Internet at the vast numbers of Windows downloads to see that. Microsoft is pretty careful about stopping piracy; every copy of Windows has to be registered online or by phone using its own unique key-code. Imagine how many ebook customers that would annoy.

Back in the days of the BBC Micro, the word processor of choice was WordStar, which came on a Sideways ROM. I had a Second Processor, which meant I had more memory for my documents. But WordStar refused to work on the second processor — I had to switch it off and write my stuff on the unadorned BBC Micro. One day at a computer exhibition I came upon a representative of the distributors of WordStar and asked him why this was. It turned out it was to prevent copying: it checked to see if it was running in RAM by trying to write to itself, and if it was it would crash, on purpose, with no diagnostic or warning messages. On the second processor, the contents of the ROM were copied over the tube to the second processor's RAM, hence the test saw RAM, and the application crashed.

The thing was, every extension board on the market that had RAM, had a switch to disable writes. The copy-protection did almost nothing to stop copying, and nothing at all to stop real pirates copying the ROM into another ROM and selling it. All it did was to inconvenience innocent, paying customers such as myself.

There are many different types of pirate. Most pirates are opportunists. They will copy your product if they can do it quickly and easily, otherwise they wont.
The first, simplest piece of DRM you put in stops 90% of piracy and aggravates maybe 1-3% of your customers. That is where the Kindle is sitting at the moment. I can rip the DRM'd eBooks into unprotected versions if I want to, I know which piece of software I can use to do that. But in the main it is too much bother, and I would feel bad doing it. That small amount of protection is just enough of a disincentive to keep me honest. But if I had a good and moral reason to do it, if for instance I needed to read my books on a different reader, or if Amazon went bankrupt, the capability is there.

Other pirates are more technologically aware than the average customer. They can circumvent DRM that would stop most people. There are techniques you can use to stop them. You can have your application check its license with your servers. Then you annoy the innocent customer who doesn't have a network connection. You can register the application with the serial number of the user's hard-disk. Then you annoy the customer who had a disk crash and had to replace his hard-disk. Every piece of DRM that you add, will alienate some of your customers. The more DRM you add, the more honest customers you will drive away.

A few pirates are so good that no amount of DRM is going to stop them. You can not prevent these pirates stealing your product. Try as hard as you like, you will still find your product available for download on Pirate Bay — with all your expensive DRM stripped out. The cost of adding that much DRM is immense. Not only is it expensive to develop, support and maintain, but if you think you are stopping 99% of piracy, the chances are that you are losing half your paying customers because your DRM is so intrusive.

National Instruments allows you to install Labview on multiple PCs, even though you only have a single-user license. They allow you to change the PC and user three times a year. That lets you get out of the hole where your PC has exploded and you need to move to another, or when the developer has retired and another takes over. It also allows you to have two developers that use it one at a time for projects lasting a month or three each, and allows those developers to ask for technical support without one having to masquerade as the other. I am sure that National Instruments would prefer you to buy two licenses for that but, given that Labview costs thousands of pounds, they know that it is going to happen anyway and the goodwill they earn by making it easy, far outweighs the small number of extra sales that more stringent DRM would force.

It is always going to be galling to see thousands of people downloading pirate copies for free, while your sales stagger along in the low hundreds, but the fact is, those pirate copies are not lost sales. Most of the people who download your product would never have bought it at the price you are asking. Just as sales go up when you cut your prices, so a cost of zero produces more downloads. It would be lovely to get all those downloaders as customers, but the only way to sell to all of them is to cut your price to zero. Many people will pay a premium to buy from you. When they buy from you they know that they are supporting you and that you will support them. They get a nice feeling when they do the right thing. Other people are only downloading your product because it is free. These sort of people have vast libraries of swag that they never use. They will never be your customers and you are better off without them.

The more people there are who like you, the more customers you will have. If people feel that they matter to you, even that you will forgo sales just to make their life easier, they will go out of their way to support you. Maybe they will burn your mp3s to CDs so they can listen to them in the car, and maybe you would prefer that they buy the album twice, but they will buy your next album, and the one after that. Maybe you wince when you think of them lending that CD to a friend, and wince again when he copies it, but maybe that friend buys your next album too. On the other hand, annoying people does not endear them to you, it drives them to the pirates. Then when your next album comes out, they'll go straight to Pirate Bay.

It would be nice if every person that used your product had paid you money, but it isn't going to happen. On the other hand, everyone who uses your product and enjoys the experience, whether they have paid for it or not, is an advertisement that you don't have to pay for.

When you buy site licenses for some Microsoft products, your employees are allowed to install them on their home PCs as well. Microsoft know that it is going to happen anyway and it would be difficult for either you or them to stop it. It is far better public relations to embrace it than to annoy paying customers by trying to stamp it out.

Given that your product has been expensive to produce, some DRM is probably a good thing, but it should be the absolute minimum that stops only the most casual of copying. If you are charging thousands for your product, then, like National Instruments, you might add a little more DRM and allocate extra to your support department to field the calls from the customers you will aggravate. People who have paid that much for your product are invested enough to take a little time over it now and again. But if your product is selling for only a few pounds, then the most you should do is to stop someone dragging and dropping the files. Any more than that will probably be counter-productive. Even that much will lose you sales.

The same process operates on the Internet, with articles and pictures. Most people pay no attention to copyright and take any pictures they fancy and copy any text. Most web pages display no copyright notice or license which, in most jurisdictions, means that their content cannot be copied without infringing their copyright. People do it anyway, just as they go to Pirate Bay for their music. That is why I post my pictures on flickr and my articles here on Wikidot, both of which have the capability to display clear copyright notices. By doing that, I hope to give pirates a moment's pause. But then I make almost all of my content available for them to copy, so long as they give a nod to me and don't make more money out of it than I do. So if you want to quote this article somewhere, or use one of my pictures of cats for your own personal web page, then please go ahead. You're going to do it anyway, I may as well give you permission. On the other hand, if you want my article for a commercial publication, then you'll have to talk to me first.

Add a New Comment
Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License