Monday, October 07, 2013

DRM: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Copyleft Symbol via Wikimedia
DRM is at best a controversial issue and at worst a pain in the ass and an infringement on consumer rights. However, with piracy being seen as a thorn on companies' sides, we have come to accept that it is here to stay. 

I argue that there are good and bad ways to do DRM.

Gamers have long since had to deal with intrusive, obnoxious, downright evil DRM. I'm looking at EA here, specifically, but also every company that has ever required a single-player game to have an internet connection or even thought of adding SecuROM to their disks. No. Just... no.

I understand why companies (not just game publishers) would think DRM is a good idea. In theory, stops people from reproducing your content and selling it illegally. In theory it protects the authors (and the publishers) from lost sales.

In theory.

In practice, DRM is nothing more than an inconvenience and a challenge to a select group of people who just love tearing down security measures. In practice, it is a shackle on the consumer's freedom. You don't really own anything that comes saddled with a DRM. You can't do what you want with it.

In short, DRM is bad. It's bad for you and, ironically, it's bad for publishers. 

Except when it isn't.

There are cases where DRM is done absolutely right. Or, well, one case, as far as I'm aware, and that is Steam. Steam is DRM. There is no way around it. Yet it is DRM which adds value to both the consumer AND the publisher. 

The consumer - in this case, the gamer - gets cheaper games, access to promotions, an achievement system, a backup cloud storage solution, a central location for their games AND their gaming buddies, as well as cross platform gaming (buy once, play on all available platforms). They get an entire community of gamers accessible from their fingertips IN GAME. Read more about Steam.

The publishers get a platform with millions of user to sell to. Since it's all digital, they also save money on distribution costs, since there's no need to create actual physical media. They get immediate access to hundreds of fans of their product for fast feedback and for closer interaction. They get to easily launch promotions and campaigns for DLC.

And Valve? Valve gets revenue. Lots of it. In short, Steam is a service where there's a tradeoff between giving up a little of your freedom in one aspect and gaining in another one. 

It's unfortunate that Steam is just about the only mainstream service that does DRM well (games require account authentication before they're played but yes you can play offline after the first time). 

It has been shown time and again, that piracy doesn't actually hurt sales. In fact, people who pirate are often more likely to end up spending money in the very same things they pirate. Companies like Netflix have discovered this and are using piracy rates to find out what audiences want. That's how you should react to piracy, not trying to curb it.

In the end, what piracy mostly is, is the sharing of information and culture. Instead of trying to sell culture, think of your product as value over that culture. You're not selling music, you are selling high quality mp3s, with a guarantee and perhaps even the ability for the buyer to download it whenever they need to. That's how you should look at your businesses, media companies.