Stop the DRM virus

The original lament that consumers would destroy the industries that brought them culture has been replaced by the desire most industries have to control their customers.

By Simon St. Laurent
May 3, 2016
Boat lift in Germany Boat lift in Germany (source: Pixabay)

The Day Against DRM is a modern day Boston Tea Party. Users across the Internet express their displeasure against a tariff imposed by distant masters more concerned for their own profit than their customers’ needs.

Digital Rights Management (DRM) was built on fear, and continues as a tool of control. The original lament that consumers would destroy the industries that helped our culture to flourish has been replaced by the desire most industries have to control their customers. It became clear years ago in industry after industry—computer software, games, movies, music, and books—that DRM inconveniences customers and does little to protect the creators of content.

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Forward-looking companies like Apple, Google, Netflix, and Amazon have built huge new businesses by embracing the future rather than by trying to stop it. They’ve explored new business models and created new kinds of content that serves today’s consumers and is available in modern channels.

We’ve followed this same path at O’Reilly. Even though our original business was publishing, and many of our competitors embraced DRM in hope of preserving their business, we always trusted our customers and distributed our content DRM-free. We also built new business models for carrying out our mission—changing the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators. These include a much larger emphasis on live events and on subscription access to a body of content so large that no one could possibly download it all, constantly updated, and with constant new sources of value.

We are following the same path as Amazon and Netflix (whose original content drives subscription loyalty through ever-increasing value) in adding more and more value to our Safari online subscription platform. Originally an ebook-only library, it now includes thousands of hours of video training, complete video access to our conferences and other events, new kinds of online tutorials combining text, video, and live interactive content, and learning paths designed to help people get from where they are to where they need to be. And we make our content available however people want it. If people want downloadable content, they can buy it by the piece, but always DRM-free.

Meanwhile, companies that relied on DRM to protect their business found that it was hurting them instead. Years ago, Joe Wikert pointed out that DRM could lead to vendor lock-in, cutting off publishers from their customers. Middlemen thrive when customers can’t easily move.

Giving O’Reilly readers their freedom to take content elsewhere also preserves O’Reilly’s freedom. While we do sell through Amazon and other outlets, our broader DRM-free approach reduces that lock-in. It’s hard to explain that to a world in which companies strive to control anything they think will give them leverage. Tim O’Reilly, our founder, talks about the need to “create more value than you capture,” but it remains an unusual opinion in business.

I hope our customers see the value of avoiding DRM, but I also hope our competitors and companies everywhere also see it. DRM, by limiting the relations customers can have with things that they purchase, restricts and sometimes poisons the relationship between vendors and customers.

Nonetheless, DRM and its mindset continue to spread. As I pointed out years ago, the W3C, while carefully making sure that its EME technology isn’t itself DRM, certainly enables DRM with those specifications and makes wobbly excuses for its behavior. The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s (EFF) request that they at least implement a covenant to keep it minimally open—a non-prosecution covenant—was recently answered with mush as the W3C rechartered the work: “After discussion for several months and review at the recent W3C Advisory Committee meeting, no consensus has yet emerged from follow-up discussions about the covenant from the EFF.”

Laws and trade agreements also promise to make DRM more frightening. Getting around code and the lightweight encryption that DRM typically uses is one thing, but making DRM circumvention illegal even when no copyright violation is involved is a much darker conversation.

Let’s stop the DRM virus together. Let’s get past the old DVD region code dance, strange visions of DRM’d coffee cups, and excuses that there’s just too much money involved to expect companies to trust customers.

Trust is powerful, letting us explore new possibilities. Let’s trust.

Tim O’Reilly contributed to this piece.

Post topics: Emerging Tech