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DRM has always been a horrible idea

Ron Miller | Dec. 17, 2013
And there's mounting evidence that it's counterproductive.

A recent report found that when you remove digital rights management from albums, revenue actually increases. TorrentFreak reports that music revenue increased 10% on general content and 30% on what it called long-tail content -- proving that buyers don't like it when you place restrictions on content.

Back in the '90s, probably about the time Napster surfaced, it suddenly occurred to executives in the entertainment industry that they might have to confront this Internet thing. But they feared this new distribution channel too much to embrace it, and instead they sought to control it with digital rights management ( DRM).

Movie studios and record companies were already regretting the digitization of their content. For them, CDs and DVDs were bad enough, allowing for perfect digital copies, but the Internet was much worse: a channel through which people could share these digital copies and bypass the entertainment companies altogether.

Reactionary fear just seems to come natural to the entertainment industry. It had feared cassette tape players ("Mixtapes are stealing our revenue!"). It had feared radio ("Who's going to buy records when they can hear music all day long for free?"). And of course the movie and television industry had feared cable and VCRs and fought them tooth and nail.

With that history, it isn't exactly surprising that entertainment executives didn't engage the Internet phenomenon with forward thinking. They weren't about to build distribution networks of their own to battle Napster and its ilk. Instead, they fell back on their default mode, a defensive crouch, and came up with what they thought was a way to control digital distribution by attaching DRM to the digital content they sold.

It was warped thinking, and it produced bizarre results. Does DRM punish pirates? Not really. The people it hurts most are the entertainment giants' paying customers. It says in effect, "If you play by our rules and buy our content, you will be limited to a single copy, and you had better hope it never gets damaged or lost, because we've made it impossible for you to save a backup copy. But if you steal our content, you can use it on an unlimited number of devices and share it with all of your family members and friends."

And the content could be stolen because, of course, DRM, like all technology, could be broken. This effort to use brute force to control the uncontrollable was doomed to fail, but the entertainment industry seemed incapable of even imagining that it could find a way to take advantage of the best distribution platform the world has ever known.

Is it any closer to seeing the truth today? A few enlightened executives might be, but for the most part, the entertainment companies are still obsessed with control.


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