Is Social DRM the Great Digital Compromise?
There are two certainties in digital book world. First, DRM is a major stumbling block for widespread ebook adoption. Second, piracy exists. Many content owners (publishers and authors) believe that DRM is necessary to prevent piracy and protect their ownership rights. The belief that DRM prevents piracy is a fallacy. There is no published report, no scientific findings, and no anecdotal evidence that suggest DRM reduces piracy. Really, the only thing that DRM does is provide the content owner with a false sense of security about the non piratable nature of their digital products.
In fact, the only evidence we have, either from studies or anectodal evidence, is that DRM encourages piracy whereas digital products with no DRM have no increase in piracy. Random House proved this with its audiobook experiment last year. Random House wanted to sell its audiobooks through eMusic. eMusic, however, sold only MP3s and this format does not allow for any DRM. RandomHouse “watermarked all of the eMusic files and then hired a piracy watchdog service to monitor and report back … if any of [the] titles appeared on the major filesharing networks.”
The purpose “Because piracy is already a fact of life in the digital world, what we were interested in finding out was not whether piracy exists, but rather whether there is any correlation between DRM-free distribution and an increased incidence of piracy.”
The results: we have not yet found a single instance of the eMusic watermarked titles being distributed illegally. We did find many copies of audiobook files available for free, but they did not originate from the eMusic test, but rather from copied CDs or from files whose DRM was hacked. It is worth noting that these results are entirely consistent with what the music industry has found in the last six months. After conducting their own tests with Amazon, Walmart.com and others, the major labels have reached the conclusion that MP3 distribution does not in itself lead to increased piracy, they are now moving their entire catalogs to this approach.
Indeed, every major publisher of music has allowed its music to be sold without DRM. So what’s different between books and music? Why have the major music labels been convinced that DRM is a detriment to digital distribution? I don’t have an answer for this.
Enter Social DRM
I’ve never really thought about the concept of Social DRM until recently although David Rothman from Teleread.org seems to be a proponent of it. It is disliked by some because any DRM is unacceptable or because social drm necessarily involves the embedding of some personal information. Other’s believe that Social DRM is only effective if the entirety of the reading/buying community is ethical, which it is not (else piracy probably would not exist).
Social DRM is essentially embedding some kind of marker in the file itself so that it can be traced back to the original consumer. Itunes does this with its DRM free music. Within each file is the email address and account information for the purchaser of the song.
It’s true that this type of DRM can be stripped just like the existing DRM can be stripped. However, it allows the sharing of a book amongst close and trusted friends. The lack of proprietary DRM allows people to have device freedom. (portability). It reduces the cost of epublishing (creating multiple formats is one of the largest epublishing costs, along with the DRM costs).
Let me repeat that no DRM is proof against hackability and that is true for social DRM. It is possible, though, that a social DRM can serve to remind users that mass sharing is dangerous and provide a balance between the need for security (no matter how illusory) for a content owner and the freedom of ownership and portability for the consumer.
I believe that NO DRM is the best way to go, but I’m open to a social DRM. What do you think?