Digital rights management (DRM) software is a touchy topic. The issue of DRM is surrounded by a lot of noisy debate over what constitute the rights of content creators, distributors, and consumers; the practical value it can provide; the relationship between industries that make heavy use of copyright and the governments that make and enforce copyright law; and the security implications of DRM for content consumers.

DRM software itself is generally regarded as an onerous, unfair imposition on content consumers by those consumers. In contrast, distributors who use DRM generally regard it as security software, providing “security” for a revenue model rather than for anything tangible. The biggest problem with regarding it as security software is the fact that it is usually counterproductive. While the philosophical considerations in the debate are interesting and important, for purposes of deciding whether we should use DRM they can probably wait until we sort out whether it even offers the benefits content distributors expect.

In a recent article by Jack Wallen, he asked Shouldn’t Linux embrace DRM? He supports the basic premise of the article with arguments that are exceedingly common among proponents of strict copyright enforcement in general and, more specifically, DRM. Many of his statements revolve around the idea that content creators cannot get paid if they do not take measures to ensure that every single person who enjoys the creator’s work pays for it through standard, corporate channels. Anyone who has not paid, according to this perspective, should be prevented from enjoying the work. Worse, the common take on this perspective is that anyone who manages to slip through the cracks and enjoys it without paying should be dragged into court, stripped of thousands of dollars of money the person probably hasn’t even earned yet, and possibly thrown in jail.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but . . . poppycock.

Scarcity, in economic terms, is an essential component in determining the price the market will bear for a particular good. The market price of a good is part of what determines its value to the seller; the rest is mostly how much the seller wants to keep it. While creating the first copy of a copyrightable work is often quite heavily dependent on labor and expertise, the cost of producing functional copies of the original rapidly approaches zero as technology advances. In the case of costs dropping due to economies of scale, efficiencies of expertise, and specialized equipment access for making physical products, it usually costs a lot more for a consumer to make a copy of something he or she bought from a retail outlet than it does for the manufacturer to make a copy. This difference in price is what makes it worthwhile for someone to buy something that somebody else made.

Copyrightable works are a completely different story, because the cost to produce copies of a digital media file of some sort is near zero — not just for the creator or distributor, but for the consumer as well. The kind of business model that relies on strict copyright enforcement exists only because scarcity is maintained by artificial means, primarily through enforcement of laws. It is thus predicated upon the assumption that there is nothing wrong with artificial scarcity as the basis of rent-seeking behavior. The truth of the matter is that there is actually something wrong with it. There are, in fact, several things wrong:

  1. It really annoys customers, making them less likely to be your customer and more likely to be a competitor’s. If you think competition does not work like that, you probably have never thought about the fact that many people make decisions every day based on which author, TV series producer, or musician gets their attention. Just as radio stations get tuned out in favor of other stations when they have too many commercials, so do authors get passed up for ebook purchases in favor of other authors whose writings do not come with DRM. Attention is the driver of profit for content creators; good luck with your business model of telling people you do not want their attention.
  2. Free distribution is free advertising. Do you know what launched Microsoft as a software company back in its very early days? I do. It was the piracy of the Microsoft BASIC implementation for the Altair home computer, as described in Steven Levy’s book Hackers. The most financially successful documentary creator right now got there by encouraging piracy (and asking people who liked it to give him money after the fact). Many bands are making much more money giving away their albums in digital formats (asking for what amounts to donations instead of demanding retail payment) than they ever did selling their music outright — including Harvey Danger, Nine Inch Nails, Prince, and Radiohead, as well as a bunch of smaller artists who could never even get signed with a major label. Authors such as Cory Doctorow, Eric Raymond, Neil Gaiman, and several writers for O’Reilly ensure that their books are not only sold for money, but also given away for free in digital form, and make a living as writers nonetheless (to the extent they keep writing, of course).
  3. On a more personal note, I am a writer. I write fiction, I write articles for TechRepublic (obviously), I write RPG materials, I write software (as you might already know), and I am working on ideas for a couple of nonfiction books. I make money at some of these writing activities, I hope to make money at others in time, and do not seek to (directly) make money at whatever is left. If I use DRM for these things, I will exclude a lot of my potential audience. By doing so, I might make more money per person who makes use of what I create because of reducing the number of users by which I would have to divide my total revenue, but I would almost certainly make less money overall because free distribution is free advertising. Another problem arises, too: I would simply be known for the quality of my work to fewer people. A real artist, almost by definition, is not someone who wants to limit his or her works to a very small number of people who pay money for it. He or she wants people to appreciate his or her works. Distribution is not just advertising; it is also the purest reward for creating. I may not be “a real artist”, but I share many of the same motivations at least. If I create something and someone loves it enough to want to share it with a friend (or even, benevolently, with strangers), I consider that the greatest compliment my audience can pay me, and I count myself lucky. Just as imitation is said to be the sincerest form of flattery, sharing — what you might call “piracy” — is the sincerest form of appreciation of my work. I would much rather be pirated than ignored.

An author whose name should be familiar to many readers of this article has an interesting tale to tell of the evolution of his views on copyright enforcement where his books are concerned:

Places where I was being pirated . . . I was selling more and more books. People were discovering me through being pirated, and then they were going out and buying the real books.

He went on to explain that, after an experiment that involved making his novel American Gods available on the Web in its entirety for a month, measured sales of his books “went up 300%.” While Cory Doctorow gets most of the attention among novelists and short fiction writers who give away their stories for free in digital formats — in part, surely, because he actually writes science fiction about the future of copyright law sometimes — Neil Gaiman has increasingly become an effective advocate for permissive distribution of copyrightable works.

For the whole monologue from which I mined the above quote, watch this video posted to YouTube by the Open Rights Group:

(View the video at YouTube here.)

The moral of the story he tells is obvious; so-called piracy is just the modern age’s answer to used book sales, borrowing, and library access for people who want to experience and discover the works of authors whose writing they had never read before. People do not usually discover their favorite authors by going to the store and buying a random novel by an author they have not encountered before. Given these circumstances, perfect DRM — perfectly ensuring that only one person would ever get the chance to read a particular book — would be perfectly disastrous. When readers share their favorite novels with others, they are in effect providing a service for the publisher in the form of the most effective advertising available.

In addition to that, providing media to customers without any DRM keeps them happy, which makes them much more likely to come back for more.