Imposing technological solutions for Digital Rights Management (DRM) is, in theory, a viable way to stop the piracy of online content. In theory. In practice DRM presents a host of implementation problems and customer service headaches because legitimate content owners are punished or disadvantaged alongside thieves.
Because of the gap between current theory and practice, proponents and opponents of DRM attempt to dominate the DRM debate with apocalyptic rhetoric, political gamesmanship, and the kind of righteous indignation that is both an intellectual guilt trip and calculated lie at the same time. Neither side is really interested in what is practical or effective, or even in learning how pirated content is actually consumed by the end user.
The reason they are not interested is because they cannot sell the products they want to sell in a calm atmosphere. It takes fear of nuclear annihilation to sell both bomb shelters and bombs, so both sides in the DRM debate stoke the rhetorical fires and present their hard-line solutions as the truth, the light and the only way. All of which I’ve talked about here, here and here.
Still, it seems to me that there is one DRM question worth asking. Here’s how I referenced the issue in one of those previous posts:
Elsewhere in the clip, Mr. Doctorow makes a good point when he says that books will be copied and scanned regardless of the DRM that publishers employ. I agree. But that’s not necessarily saying something important. Scanned versions of books are almost inevitably going to be less clear than licensed e-books or even licensed digital copies. Yet even assuming someone cracks a DRM-protected book and makes it available for free, the book business has a kind of built-in protection against wanton piracy simply by nature of its content.
Music comes in small files. Movies are dumb — you just stare at them. Books, however, are big, and require active engagement over a long period of time in order to be consumed.
Maybe someone somewhere is downloading two hundred cracked e-books at a whack, then reading the first sentence of each in order to find a great read, but I think it’s unlikely. In fact, it’s unlikely that most pirated books are ever completely read, precisely because a book is relatively hard to digest. This means the ratio of thefts by end-users who intend to enjoy the content they steal to thefts by pirates who intend to profit from the content they steal may be lower in the book publishing industry than in any other medium. Which means the book publishing industry has more to gain by going after traffickers and less to gain by going after end-users than any other industry.